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Absolutely a Must-Read

March 23, 2003

Have you noticed that Americans these days have gone absolutely crazy for the word "absolutely"? It's absolutely amazing.

In everything you read or listen to it's absolutely this or that. Kroger has been absolutely pounded by Wal-Mart. Raising fares makes absolutely no sense. Has absolute power corrupted Saddam Hussein? Absolutely. A new United Nations resolution? Absolutely unnecessary. Human shields in Iraq? Absolutely unacceptable. China's social changes? Absolutely irreversible. Any crime? Absolutely horrible. Yet another alert color? Absolutely untrue. What was Secretary of State Colin Powell after a news leak? Absolutely furious. So many sports penalties? Absolutely no excuse. Sales of any new product? The phone is absolutely ringing off the hook, even though most phones absolutely don't ring anymore. Last year's poppy crop? Absolutely the worst.

What's offensive is overusing a perfectly good word, defined by Webster's as "completely or unconditionally; yes, used for emphasis." The emphasis intrigues. Is it possible in a time of continuing national stress and uncertainty, when so many people talk at each other and so few actually listen to each other, that we're escalating words and emphasis just to be heard above the clatter?

This newspaper has averaged almost five "absolutelys" a day so far this year. TV, which is absolutely awful with nuance or shades of meaning, worships absolutes. If to capture the camera's attention everything gets yelled for emphasis, what's normal anymore? Might those shouting clowns on "Crossfire," CNN's verbal food fight, be linguistic examples? Absolutely terrifying.

Though other overused phrases -- think "24/7" and "at the end of the day" -- thankfully fade from fashion, absolutely's use is increasing, well, a lot. So too is a new rhetorical device, self-interrogation. To control a discussion you ask yourself three polite questions out loud and then answer them before others pose more pointed ones. Are we devastated by Columbia's breakup? Yes. Do we know the cause? No. Are we determined to find out? Absolutely.

This is absolutely a clever tactic in modern confrontational America because it skips over potential minefields to seize the verbal high ground, making detailed follow-ups seem belabored or even rude.

We wouldn't advocate absolutely forbidding the word "absolutely." This is a democratic country and everyone is free to sound as lazy and ignorant as he or she likes. Do we think Americans want to get their message across to countrymen and others? Absolutely. Can Americans be more articulate by investing just a little thought? Absolutely. Do we think Americans will absolutely stick with "absolutely" for now? Probably.

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