Patrick Ross, author of The Artist’s Road blog, enjoins English speakers and news producers to stem the tide of “word inflation” when reporting compelling news items, this week’s hurricane reportage being the latest culprit. Few settled to call Sandy an immense storm, instead opting for “superstorm,” and while calling her a composite storm would prove unwieldy, the “Frankenstorm” neologism sounded equally outlandish. Ross recalls other atmostpheric events that have prompted similarly supersized vocabulary: Snowstorms of past years have earned monikers like “Snowpocalypse” and a Los Angeles traffic snarl was nimbly dubbed “Carmaggeddon.”
We have been doing this for some time, taking words that already encompass significant scale or impact–like “hurricane”–and modifying or replacing them with no good reason. Take “unique.” The word means “being without a like or equal.” Yet how often do we hear an interesting individual called “pretty unique,” or a rare item called “very unique”? How can you be degrees of unique? Why do we feel the need to insert a modifier in front of an absolute?
But I haven’t mentioned yet the nails-on-a-blackboard abomination that has permeated popular culture and, I fear, could find its way into permanent usage. Tell, me, honestly, why do we need the word “ginormous”? With “gigantic” we “are exceeding the usual or expected,” and with “enormous” we are “marked by extraordinarily great size, number, or degree.” I have yet to hear anything referred to as “ginormous” that could not have been fully described with one of these two words. This word inflation is a gigantic cultural problem, and its implications are enormous.
Just as intriguing as the grammatical unorthodoxy of supersized words, it seems to me, is their expression of our appetite for hyperbole. But as Ross explains, it doesn’t seem quite right to assume that the more baroque a word becomes, the more content it conveys. Lawyers may use ‘legalese’ to package complex ideas into manageable (usually Latin) phrases, and the Germans have poly-conceptual single words like Umweltverschmutzung (“pollution”). But the modern American scrivener’s rationale for lengthy new words seems to have more to do with overstatement than efficiency or precision. It’s a linguistic development we should watch, unlikely as it is to recede. And now that they’re with us, we can at least strive for consistency and call these new words by a proper name—Frankenwords.