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I have heard that in America, and likely elsewhere as well, we are beginning to be more gratuitous with our use of extreme words when not entirely accurate, such as the words "awesome", "always", "never", "crazy", etc.

Is there a word or phrase to name this phenomenon?

What are the implications of this behavior with respect to our use of language and its effect on our lives?

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Implications: thedoghousediaries.com/1760. –  zpletan Apr 18 '12 at 16:32
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I'm sceptical of the idea that using gratuitously extreme words is really any more common now than in the past. My impression is that younger speakers have always had a tendency to use words that are either excessive or inadequate to the context. Partly because they haven't yet acquired sufficient fluency to always select le mot juste, and partly because they don't always have the social confidence to say exactly what they mean, even if they do know the right words. –  FumbleFingers Apr 18 '12 at 17:17
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This question is epic. –  J.R. Apr 18 '12 at 17:33
    
If everything is emphasized, then nothing is emphasized. –  JLG Apr 18 '12 at 18:15
    
@JLG you forgot to emphasize nothing. –  Cory Klein Apr 18 '12 at 18:46
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2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The term you're looking for is hyperbole.

As for the effects on our daily lives, this psychologist has a great run down. He attributes a concept called "linguistic relativity", something he asserts affects us all, to the use of language we use every day to describe our lives. He suggests that words not only allow us to communicate our experience to others, but that the words themselves can shape the experience. For example, think of a time another car darted in front of you in traffic. There are many ways to describe this situation. One might be something like "I was almost killed today when some jerk cut me off!" Another description of the same event might be "There was a pretty dangerous situation on the road today when another driver merged in front of me pretty quickly and without notice." For many people, the first description is going to produce more anger, whereas the other may produce a more moderated concern, yet both of them are true.

The Dr in the article above focuses on how some people tend to paint themselves into unrealistically negative worldviews, however, I've noted that a lot of my friends tend to use hyperbole in a positive way: "That was the best dinner EVER." If his point holds true, the use of hyperbole by a positive person helps paint their reality into this thing I personally call "The Dream".

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Hyperbole is the right word, but I disagree about the humor. Perhaps in some cases, but I think it's just a habit that we've built up. Perhaps a form of "inflation". I think Anthony's answer covers this pretty well. –  jtbandes Apr 18 '12 at 16:54
    
How affectionately put. –  Anthony Apr 18 '12 at 16:55
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I attribute this phenomenon, at least as far as using words like super crazy, awesome, creepy, hilarious, etc. to a general tolerance for exaggeration. Essentially, we have a tendency (at least in American English) to want to emphasize, but pretty soon it becomes the baseline, leading to something no longer just being "amazing" but super amazing.

My gf says that it's not just the tendency to exaggerate, but the expectation it puts on everyone. In other words, when some people say "that's amazing!" it forces us to say "that's really amazing!" even when we don't want to exaggerate, only to distinguish our genuine amazement from the hyper-used term.

My favorite quote regarding this phenomenon is along the lines of:

"If a Big Mac with everything on it is awesome, then how do we describe the Grand Canyon?"

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The Grand Canyon is truly awesome. :) –  jtbandes Apr 18 '12 at 16:54
    
I wish I could mark both of these as the answer. I think you did the best at describing why it happens, but I had to give the checkmark to Nathan for actually answering the question of naming the phenomenon. –  Cory Klein Apr 18 '12 at 20:00
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@CoryKlein - In all fairness, I didn't catch that the term was what you were after. If I'd stop skimming so much, I would have mentioned hyperbole, or perhaps auxesis, which comes closer to the idea you have in mind (though still not quite). The reason hyperbole is not quite right is because it's a rhetorical device (which are intentional) while you are describing a rhetorical vice, which is unintentional. If I say "That Big Mac is awesome" and I'm being hyperbolic, I intended for you to compare it to the Grand Canyon. –  Anthony Apr 19 '12 at 5:31
    
Thanks for mentioning auxesis, another great word! –  Cory Klein Apr 19 '12 at 14:21
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