Emerson’s essay The Superlative is delightfully school marm-ish. In it, he lectures on why one should not use superlatives. I think he must have just returned from bad company and been a bit grumpy when he wrote:

We talk, sometimes, with people whose conversation would lead you to suppose that they had lived in a museum, where all the objects were monsters and extremes….They use the superlative of grammar: ” most perfect,” ” most exquisite,” ” most horrible.”… they are enchanted, they are desolate, because you have got or have not got a shoe-string or a wafer you happen to want, – not perceiving that superlatives are diminutives, and weaken; that the positive is the sinew of speech, the superlative the fat. If the talker lose a tooth, he thinks the universal thaw and dissolution of things has come. Controvert his opinion and he cries “Persecution! ” and reckons himself with Saint Barnabas, who was sawn in two.

I know several people like this, they drive me nuts. You probably know people like this too. Sometimes they can be entertaining especially when they are telling a story. But when you are out and about with them in the middle of the drama so to speak, it is not so very amusing. I veer.

Emerson believes the use of superlatives reveals a poverty of skill to convey quality information so the person tries to make up for it by quantity so no one will notice. The real problem with superlatives is that they are exaggerations of the truth. Why any fact needs to be exaggerated is beyond Emerson. Plain speech that is to the point is all that is needed, why even

Spartans, stoics, heroes, saints and gods use a short and positive speech. They are never off their centres. As soon as they swell and paint and find truth not enough for them, softening of the brain has already begun. It seems as if inflation were a disease incident to too much use of words, and the remedy lay in recourse to things.

There you have it, superlatives prove you have a soft brain. I wonder if there is a correlation between brain softness and frequency of exaggeration?

“Children and thoughtless people like exaggerated event and activity ; like to run to a house on fire, to a fight, to an execution,” writes Emerson. Can you imagine what he would think of nightly news broadcasts where the smallest things are turned into tragedies and the tragedies are turned into localized apocalypses?

Emerson does recognize that superlatives can be used for humor. He even gives a couple of examples that he clearly enjoys. The difference is that the speaker, when employing exaggeration for humorous effect, does not mean to be taken seriously. Someone who turns the spot of mustard she got on her shirt during lunch into the most horrible thing ever because she has a presentation to give to some bigwigs needs to get a grip. As Emerson so plainly puts it:

The firmest and noblest ground on which people can live is truth ; the real with the real ; a ground on which nothing is assumed, but where they speak and think and do what they must, because they are so and not otherwise.

Firm up the brain. Speak plain. Speak true.

Next week’s Emerson: The Sovereignty of Ethics