It’s all relative really – why some superlatives annoy me

With the Olympics upon us, we’re being bombarded with superlatives – morning, noon, and night.

Fastest. Strongest. Tallest. Highest. It goes on and on.

Yet these adjectives are part of the fabric of our rich (and evolving) language, that permit us to describe and appreciate the wonder of nature around us, as well as celebrate the achievements of our fellow humans.

In geography, they help us locate mountains, rivers, oceans, and lakes – highest, longest, deepest, largest. In history we talk about the longest reigns of monarchs, or the bloodiest battles.

So, in the right context, we can’t really do without superlatives at all.

But they are so subject to abuse – absolutely, and one in particular: BEST.

The problem with ‘best’ is that it’s both objective and, problematically, subjective. [Here’s an interesting analysis of this relative to gymnastics].

In terms of performance, it can denote fastest, highest, or longest, in athletics for example. But it’s not necessarily absolute, final. An athlete can always hope to better his/her ‘best’ performance.

We also use ‘best’ when commentating on how well someone performs a piece of music, for example, or a dance routine. ‘I was not at my best’ implies a below-par performance.

But what has begun to annoy me in recent times is the use of ‘best’ (most often by politicians at their worst) when making claims that make them look not only arrogant or conceited, but also rather silly.

Take two recent examples, both from Prime Minister Cameron, when being interviewed on BBC TV.

When asked about the less-than-ideal security arrangements for the Olympics for which G4S had been contracted to provide (more of that in another post), he replied (and I’m paraphrasing), in relation to the deployment of additional troops: ‘Of course, here in the UK we have the best armed forces in the world’. What arrant nonsense!

And last Friday morning, before heading off to address an international conference on investing in the UK, one of the incentives Cameron cited for such investment was that the UK had ‘the best universities in the world’. Not true! Well, some maybe, according to widely-cited international tables. A little later the same morning he had toned down his claims somewhat to our universities being ‘among the best in the world’.

These constant claims (and I cite just a couple of the many examples which our politicians have spouted) of being ahead of the pack internationally – whatever that is supposed to mean – are, for me at least, quite irrelevant.

What should be asked is whether the armed forces, the universities, or other services for which outstanding status is claimed vis-à-vis everyone else on the planet, are FIT FOR PURPOSE, rather than pandering meaninglessly to national pride or puffing up our national status. Absolutely.

And that’s another word that has become devalued through its current constant and irrelevant usage. ‘Absolutely’ is pervasive in the media as a response to any question that merits a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, ‘Of course’, or ‘That’s right’. I often wonder if this use of ‘absolutely’ is meant to imply a greater certainty than either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ can offer.

Language evolves, and that’s one of the beauties of English, being such an adaptable language. In the mouths of presenters, pundits, and politicians it often loses its elegance.

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