Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza on the “Maxim of Extravagance”
By Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza
September 27, 2022
I noticed it recently when I scheduled my dog for a veterinarian’s appointment. The person who answered the phone was friendly enough and greeted me warmly, and then I made my request.
I’d like to make an appointment for my dog, I said. Wonderful, said the scheduler. June McCrary. Excellent. She needs an anal gland expression. Fantastic!
I was surprised anyone could be so over the moon to empty my chihuahua’s anal glands—if you google the procedure I’m sure you will be as well—but in a way, grateful too.
When I shared this story with a friend, she told me about a conversation she overheard between two parents at the park. What are your children’s names? one of them said as they watched a pair of boys fight each other for one of those cold metal animals that bobs back and forth. The other responded but my friend didn’t catch the answer. The conversation went on and one side sounded something like this: Really? Amazing. That’s so beautiful. Just beautiful. How did you choose names like that?
Their names: Matthew and David. Fine names. But when you ooze words like amazing and beautiful, I imagine we’re dealing with something like Balthazaar and Tiberius.
We reach for over-the-top words for just about anything. These amazings and wonderfuls and incredibles and fantastics, we throw them around as we once did OKs and thank yous and I can help with thats.
Surreal is another favorite word since the spring of 2020. During the first quarantine, driving through the city in the only car on the road really did feel surreal, so did seeing every business closed, like maybe we were living in a Saramago novel. A grocery store full of masked shoppers circling each other at a wary distance of six feet wasn’t exactly surreal, but it was strange enough, so we used it there too.
Eventually we ran out of places to put the word, and by then we were tired, so driving on the road with other cars became surreal, seeing other people standing close to each other in the grocery store was surreal, not having to wear a mask was surreal. It became a way to describe change, or anything out of the ordinary.
What is it that makes us talk this way? That to express a modicum of emotion, we have to reach for words like fantastic, incredible, unbelievable, and unreal, words meant to convey a certain level of magnitude, but that no longer carry their original weight.The less potent our words are, the more we have to reach for particularly emotive ones to say what we want to say.
Martin Hilpert, who teaches linguistics at the Université de Neuchâtel in Switzerland, told me this is nothing new. “Words with evaluative meanings lose potency as speakers apply them to more and more situations. Toilet paper that is especially soft can be ‘fantastic,’ a train delayed by ten minutes can be ‘a disaster.’”
This occurs in a sort of cycle, which Martin Haspelmath, a comparative linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, describes in a handful of steps.
It happens like this: To attract attention, we submit to the “maxim of extravagance.” You really want people to see the taxidermied pig you just bought, so you tell your friend, “Man, this thing is incredible. It’s wearing a lederhosen and everything.” Your friend goes to see the pig and he too is surprised by the thing. He starts telling his friends, “that thing is incredible.” This is called “conformity.” Word gets around the neighborhood and then the whole block is talking about the incredible taxidermied pig. This is called “frequency.” You’re out for a walk one day, and you flag down a Door Dasher on a bicycle. “Have you seen the—” “The incredible taxidermied pig? Yeah man, whatever.” This is called “predictability.”
Predictability is useful when we want to fit in with the crowd, but it’s not useful if we want to attract attention, which you need at this point, because you’ve started charging admission to see the pig. Now you need to innovate, and you’re back to the maxim of extravagance again, so the pig becomes unbelievable.
A pop-linguistic term for this is “semantic bleaching,” like staining all the color out of our words, and it happens with overuse. Another way to describe it is supply and demand. When we use a word too much and there are too many excellents and beautifuls floating around, each becomes less valuable.
Bleaching has a circular relationship with hyperbole. The less potent our words are, the more we have to reach for particularly emotive ones to say what we want to say, and we climb a crowded ladder to a place where all words are wispy and white and no one is really saying anything at all. That’s how anal gland expressions become fantastic and ordinary names like David and Matthew become amazing.
Writers and thinkers have many times over made the case that stale language is both a symptom and cause of the deterioration of critical thought. George Orwell, famously, for one. He writes in “Politics and the English Language” that a speaker who uses tired language has “gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself.”
There is a certain point when turns of phrase are so out of fashion they become fresh again. Orwell’s dying metaphors of the 1940s were take up the cudgel for and ring the changes on, which would feel interesting now. Ours are full-throated and deep dive and unpack and dig in and at the end of the day.
I contacted several academics for the writing of this essay and asked them whether the new abundance of communication accelerates the exhaustion of words. They insisted that there isn’t more communication going on now than in the past, it’s just more visible. If we’re talking this much, it might be that we’re desperate to exist. If we’re slinging around words like amazing and incredible and surreal, it might be that we’re looking for these things.
I don’t believe this is true. The overwhelming quantity of means we have for talking to each other, and the fact that we’re using them, tells me there is more communication. There are some friends I talk to daily because we share a text thread. I wouldn’t be calling all five of them every day otherwise. I can watch two people berate each other in the comments section of a Washington Post article about soup, two people that, thirty years ago, would never get the chance to come to blows over curry.
Language is adapted and spread through exposure, so of course change is accelerating. In the same way clothes fall in and out of fashion at shorter intervals now, because of social media and all our instant global connectedness, so do our words.
The fields of linguistics, anthropology, and English are full of hyperbole stans who go to great lengths to make the case for its value and importance. They call it “the master trope,” “the trope of tropes,” “a generator of thought and meaning,” “a tool of philosophical and religious inquiry,” “ an act of becoming,” and “a propelling toward transcendence from an eminent exigency.”
In a paper titled “Recovering Hyperbole: Rethinking the Limits of Rhetoric for an Age of Excess,” the scholar Joshua R. Ritter argues the prescience of hyperbole. For Ritter, hyperbole reflects an innate desire for understanding. He calls it “one of the most effective ways of trying to express the often confounding and inexpressible positions that characterize the litigious discussions of impossibility.”
Ritter also cites Saint Anselm of Canterbury, who believed that the way humans describe God is the archetypal example of hyperbole—it’s everything that cannot be understood, but we do our best to understand anyway.
“It dramatically holds the real and the ideal in irresolvable tension and reveals the impossible distance between the ineptitude and the infinite multiplicity of language to describe what is indescribable,” Ritter writes.
We may be often confounded, but we are hardly ever without something to say. The internet, the great proliferator of communication, incentivizes no one to be speechless. If you’re not talking, you’re not there, so the more frequently you speak, the more real you are. Stop talking and you disappear.
If we’re talking this much, it might be that we’re desperate to exist. If we’re slinging around words like amazing and incredible and surreal, it might be that we’re looking for these things. If we are Generation Hyperbole, it is because we are so desperate to feel something good and tremendous—we’re constantly reaching for something beyond. We want to feel awed, we want to be in touch with something dreamlike, we want to see things that are really beautiful, we’ve only forgotten where to find them. But we’re looking for meaning, you can see it in our language. Even Orwell believed “that the decadence of our language is probably curable.”
Global connectedness means we’re witness to terrible things on a terrible scale, and we share an inadequate language to understand it. We need to feel, even if that feeling is pain, and we need to know that we’re not alone in the feeling. If tragedy is now commonplace, why can’t truly excellent things, amazing things, fantastic things too become commonplace?
Once a perplexing and sometimes disturbing disorienting perception occurs, this vertige de l’hyperbole as Baudelaire refers to it, one is ready for a perspectival reorientation—a paradoxical movement leading toward insight and partial apprehension. By generating confusion through excess, hyperbole alters and creates meaning.