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Replacing simple, concise words with longer, more obscure ones has long been a hallmark of bureaucratic reports and student papers. Consider the response "yes" (and its other less formal variants) being replaced by the word "absolutely".

I began noticing this in my daughter's informal speech several years ago, and since then have noticed it in guest interviews (mostly on public radio shows) in places where the particular character of "absolutely" is not needed, and "yes" would be (at least, in my opinion) a better word choice.

My best hunch is that this usage began with some particular character in a serial on television or similar, or in a movie. But I don't do television, or movies, so don't know where the usage began. Any ideas on this: who, why, where, or a more precise "when"?

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    There's nothing obscure or vague about 'absolutely'. It intensifies the meaning of 'yes' to a much higher level. I doubt that the use of absolutely is a recent thing in any way, shape or form. – Oldcat Jul 16 '14 at 18:13
  • Oldcat, I'm aware that "absolutely" can intensify the meaning of yes. I'm asking the question because I here it being used when that intensification is either not appropriate, or not relevant in the incident in which it is used. If I had not heard others overusing it the way my daughter did, I'd think it an idiosyncracy on her part, but the frequency at which I hear others use it in the same sense rules out this answer. – brasshat Jul 16 '14 at 18:19
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    Oh, that happens all the time; nothing new at all. It's a normal feature of intensification that it overdoes. Think about how "literally" has come to mean "very very", and how "millions" means "lots". – John Lawler Jul 16 '14 at 18:22
  • Am I the only one whose mind immediately had the picture of Katie Couric saying "absolutely"? – seismatica Jul 16 '14 at 18:32
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    @Mitch: I did "look it up". Not the movie, but written instances of "absolutely he replied" from before 1945. There seem to be plenty of them where the word essentially means Yes! [indeed]. As John says, it's a common characteristic of intensification that people quickly start overdoing it. You don't need to look for a single instance to ascribe it to. – FumbleFingers Jul 16 '14 at 20:21
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As I understand it, absolutely as a stand-in for yes actually means "yes in the strongest possible terms"—not the sort of equivocal, mealy-mouthed affirmation we might expect from politicians who are intent on avoiding being pinned down to commitments of any kind. Of course, emphatically affirming something can produce a smokescreen of another kind—one in which hearers imagine that they have received a binding confirmation from a speaker who in fact doesn't feel bound by it at all—but I don't associate that type of dishonesty with politicians in particular.

In any case, I ran a few Google Books searches and found a number of instances of absolutely used in (written) conversation in what I take to be the sense of "yes indeed" or "very much so"—all from books published more than a century ago.

From Richard Sheridan, The Rivals (1775):

Acres. ... I shall straightway cashier the hunting-frock, and render my leather breeches incapable—My hair has been in training some time.

Captain Absolute. Indeed!

Acres. Aye—and thoff the side curls are a little restive, my hind part takes it very kindly.

Captain Absolute. Oh, you'll polish, I doubt not.

Acres. Absolutely I propose so—then if I can find out this ensign Beverley, odds triggers and flints I'll make him know the difference o't.

From Henry Brownrigg, "The Linen-Drapers Assistant," in Rural Repository (October 7, 1843):

Let it be granted, that the linen-drapers succeed in their demand for leisure—in their cry for time to unroll their minds, to see of what stuff and pattern they are composed ; let us allow that they have obtained their end : well, does any reasonable tradesman suppose that the evil is finished? Certainly not. What, then, is the next calamity? Why—yes—absolutely

"We see, as from a tow'r, the end of all!"

we behold the fluttering of ribands—the waving of handkerchiefs: we see the milliner's girls in wild rebellion ! They, too, cry for leisure!

The result of all this is as plain as the nose on Mammon's face—the result is the utter subversion of the present principles of society.

From an 1846 translation of Dumas's The Count of Monte-Cristo, volume 2:

"What next? what more do you want?"

"I wish to know, if in demanding my signature, you leave me entirely free in my person?"

"Absolutely."

"Then, well, as I said before, sir, I am ready to marry M. Cavalcanti."

From Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853):

My dear George," returns his brother, "is it so indispensable that you should undergo that process?"

"Quite! Absolutely! I couldn't be guilty of the meanness of coming back without it. I should never be safe not to be off again. I have not sneaked home to rob your children, if not yourself, brother, of your rights. ..."

From John Cooke, Ellie: Or, The Human Comedy (1855):

"You don't mean to say—"

"That I'm in love with Miss Aurelia? Yes I do—and I warn you to play your part well."

"Hum!" said Heartsease, languidly.

"I shall press the siege."

"Really, now?"

"Absolutely."

"Then I withdraw. It's a bore to contest a woman—everything is a bore, for that matter."

From William Ainsworth, The Lord Mayor of London, serialized in Bentley's Miscellany, volume 52 (1862):

"Excuse me, sir, I can't play the hypocrite. I haven't a father to cajole."

"Zooks! rascal, do you suspect me of hypocrisy? Mind what I say. Henceforth, no airs—no nonsense—no foppery!"

And is this expected?"

"Absolutely."

I'm afraid, sir, the place won't suit me."

From an examination of Leopold Cust by Mr. Brooks (July 5, 1877) in Reports from Committees of the House of Commons, Great Britain (1877):

  1. Have the Commissioners the slightest power in ordering the arrest of a drunken man?Absolutely. You will see we had a great number of cases formerly, when every case was brought forward in their name. They must be the complainants if they wish to receive the amount of fine for the benefit of the town.

From John Saunders, "Jasper Deane: Wood-Carver of St. Paul's," in Good Words for 1877 (1877):

"Come, come, speak out, you know my position and"—

"I am so profoundly ignorant of everything related to it that, while I can but think and dream and hope, I fear to commit myself in every word I say."

That is true?"

"Absolutely."

“You really mean to declare that you do not, directly or indirectly, know that the whole of the wood-carvings of the choir of the new St. Paul's are entrusted to me?—that I am about to begin at once, so that by the time the place is ready to receive them they too shall be ready for the place? You know nothing of that?"

"Nothing whatever."

From R.T. Gunton, "How My Wife Went to Margate," in London Society (Holiday number, 1883):

'But what can we do?' said Lucy ; 'advise us, dear papa ; I know Tom will only be too glad to be guided by you.'

'Absolutely,' I said, wincing. I had been guided by Mr. Briggs once before in a little matter of mining shares, and remembered it.

From L.T. Meade, How It All Came Round, serialized in Frank Leslie's Sunday Magazine (August 1884):

"You know all?"

"I know everything."

"Then you—you will save my father?"

"Absolutely. You need fear nothing from me or mine ; in this we are but quits. Did not you save Harold ?"

"Ah," said Charlotte Harman ; she took no notice of her friend and guest, she sat down on the nearest chair and covered her face.

From Madcap Nellie: A Novel in Real Life (1888):

"Where is Nellie Bailey?"

The old detective looked at Mr. Lane keenly.

"You are not in the employ of her husband?"

"No, sir, I am not."

“And you will keep the secret?”

"Absolutely."

"Then I don't mind telling you. But first I would like to know why you ask."

These examples from imagined (and in one case real) dialogues suggest that use of "absolutely" in the sense of "emphatically yes" was well established by the 1880s. I don't see any reason to suppose that the practice had to be reinvented in recent years, since it was already a part of English speech more than a century ago.

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To answer your question directly, I'll quote CNN writer, John Blake, not because of the credibility of the source, but because I have heard this theory before:

When absolutely took off

An etymologist can trace the origin and development of a word, but who can identify the moment when absolutely took off?

Rex Bossert, an assistant dean at the University of California, Irvine's School of Law, thinks he can. He blames O.J..

He says he noticed people starting favoring the word during the O.J. Simpson murder trial. He points to Simpson's plea. When Simpson was asked at his 1994 arraignment on twin murder charges if he was guilty, he didn't just say, not guilty.

Simpson said: "Absolutely, 100 percent not guilty."

In the court of public opinion, celebrities now know that people are cynical, Bossert says. They expect spin and deception. Invoking absolutely is someone's attempt to say, I'm not like the other guys, he says. "In a time where there is so much mendacity and prevarication, a simple affirmation such as 'yes' doesn't quite cut it anymore," he says.

It's also a way for pundits, bloggers and talk-show hosts to elevate themselves during the 24-hours news cycle, says Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture history at Syracuse University in New York City. In the rapid-fire exchanges between debaters on news shows, "absolutely" is the linguistic version of an exclamation point, Thompson says.

"The word, absolutely, is like saying that this is positively true — this is inarguable," Thompson says. Will constant use of the word, though, drain it of all of its meaning? Maybe.

A wise man once said, "Let your yes be yes and your no be no; anything beyond this is evil."

Was he right?

Absolutely!

http://www.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/wayoflife/07/14/absolutely/index.html?iref=24hours

  • How does this square with another answer which puts this use of Absolutely into popular literature (which would lag behind popular speech patterns) around 1850? – Andrew Leach Mar 22 '15 at 10:47
  • I believe the question was phrased in such a way that it was not seeking origin or first uses of the word, but rather the origin of the obsession for the word. The poser of the question was also relating to experiences within his lifetime, inferring that he was not looking for answers from pop culture 1850. With all due respect, this question was not about the appearance of the word in literature; please re-read the last paragraph of the question. – Tightwriter Mar 22 '15 at 11:06
  • Sigh!! About every three days someone comes here with a question about some "new obsession" people seem to have for a particular term, and it almost always turns out that the term had been around for aeons. What usually happens is that Opie begins noticing the term more, and thus a conspiracy is suspected, even though nothing has really changed. – Hot Licks Oct 12 '15 at 22:23
  • The question is about a fad, and when did the fad start. The people who say "absolutely" never heard of Richard Sheridan, although it is interesting that the word was used at least 240 years ago. – ab2 Oct 13 '15 at 2:46

protected by NVZ May 11 '17 at 5:26

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