Concept Inflation

Many places in the world claim to make the “world’s greatest hamburgers.” So many places, in fact, that one is tempted to conclude that many folks have adopted some new meaning for the phrase “world’s greatest.” OK, the temptation is weak in this case, but I suspect that such meaning drifts are common, and that they make positive concepts less positive, and negative concepts less negative. Let me explain.

Many words, like “excellent”, “genius”, “rude”, or “tyrant” have ambiguous borderlines, so that it isn’t clear to what cases the concepts do or don’t apply. In such borderline cases, we should expect people to choose their words strategically, to make they and their allies look good, and to make their rivals look bad. That is, we expect people to try be especially generous and loose in order to let them apply positive words to themselves or their allies, but to be especially strict and stingy in order to avoid applying such words to their rivals. For example, my modest insight seems “genius” to me, but your modest insight seems to me insufficient for such a lofty title. We also expect negative words to be applied reluctantly to allies, but generously to rivals. You were “rude,” but I was merely “thoughtless.”

If the tendencies to apply a concept generously are not equally balanced by opposing tendencies to apply that concept strictly, then its meaning should drift in one direction or the other. For example, if people more often use a certain positive concept to describe themselves and their allies, and less often apply the concept to rivals, then we should expect its perceived meaning based on recent usage to drift to cover more cases. And since we expect the newly covered cases to be intrinsically less positive, we expect the concept to drift toward a less positive connotation. When more students get “A” grades, then “A” is less positive a distinction. Similarly, if we use negative concepts more often on rivals, we should expect those concepts to drive toward a less negative connotation.

We do seem to use positive concepts to describe ourselves and our allies, more often than we use such concepts to describe rivals, mainly because we talk about ourselves and allies more than we talk about rivals. So we should expect such positive concepts to broaden and become less positive with time. Yet we still have many concepts with both ambiguous borderlines and substantially positive connotations. So there must be some opposing tendency that makes positive concepts get more positive. What is that tendency?

Our tendency to talk more about ourselves and our allies than our rivals should make it more possible for negative concepts to retain a narrow application and strong negativity. Is this what we see – do negative concepts tend to be stronger and more restricted?

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  • D

    For anyone else interested in more logical analysis of vague predicates, the research area of Sorites paradoxes covers this indepth.

  • Granite26

    I think that the issue is that as positive traits become more generalized, they cease to be used as frequently. The assymptote they are approaching isn’t neutral, it’s lukewarm.

    Additionally, word use is cyclical. The usages that damage the intensity of the words connotation tend to be more temporal(pundits, papers,blogs, T.V.) More perminent uses tend to be in either historical or fictional settings, where there tend to be culturally constant good guys and bad guys. The temporal becomes bombastic, the word loses meaning and stops being used, until it’s ‘discovered’ again, by people reading the source material.

  • Ben

    There’s presumably going to be at least weak pushback against this effect by those seeking to preserve the integrity of certain words.

    No, Marty’s Diner, you don’t have the best hamburgers in the world, and you are an idiot to suggest so.

    No, Steve, Obama is not a radical communist, and you are an idiot to suggest so.

  • Michael Wengler

    I suspect part of the inflation arises from dealing with 100s of millions of people in our “tribe” when we evolved to handle a few 100 reasonably well. Many of us train the crap out of our minds and still have an extremely limited understanding of the difference between a million a billion a trillion let alone a million and a thousand. How many times have I wondered how a rock star can be rich if they get only like $1 per album sold? Oh yeah, they sell millions.

    I expect significantly more “seat of the pants” numeracy from my non-PhD physicist planet-mates.

    And of course, we have marketing. Through accidents of history we cannot advertise something as “by appointment to the queen” so we use “world’s greatest,” “new and improved,” and so on.

  • Dan Weber

    The inflation of words like this makes me literally explode.

  • Sister Y

    Brains, groups, and language tend toward euphemism (elision of painful things).

    Irony can only do so much to keep language honest.

  • Benjamin Geer

    These sound like great questions to base an empirical study on.

  • in answer to your question

    aspie finds a way to translate another portion of normie common knowledge into impressive-sounding insight fellow aspie’s judge impressive. gay (and upvoted).

  • John Thacker

    Incidentally, government has very strict requirements about false advertising for saying that your product is “better” than someone else’s, but outlandish claims that you make the “world’s best” are excused as “puffery,” the technical legal term that the Federal Trade Commission employs.

  • Robert Koslover

    OK, so stop me if you’ve heard this one: There were these four coffee shops all on the same street. One day, the owner of the first one puts up a big sign saying “Best Coffee in the City.” Not to be outdone, the owner of second shop puts up an even bigger sign saying “Best Coffee in the Country.” The very next day, the third shop owner puts up huge sign saying “Best Coffee in the World.” A whole week goes by. Then, the owner of the fourth shop puts up a simple, hand-drawn sign that says “Best Coffee on This Street!”

  • bill

    yeah, auto insurance commercials are an example of this. there’s not a single insurance company that can’t save you 500 on your bill……

    this happens with lots of advertising in general, i imagine.

    • John Thacker

      yeah, auto insurance commercials are an example of this. there’s not a single insurance company that can’t save you 500 on your bill……

      That’s actually different, they have hard numbers so they don’t get the “puffery” excuse from the FTC. However, it’s quite true that “the average person who switches saves $X on car insurance.” That’s simply because people who would save below a certain amount (or who would paid more) don’t bother to switch. If people only bother to change companies when they save at least $200 a year, then the average switcher saves considerably more than $200 a year.

      What it doesn’t tell you is how likely you are to have those potential savings.

  • Scott Messick

    I have two related hypotheses. The first is that people are simply smart enough to keep track, in the backs of their minds at least, of manipulative versus genuine uses of words. Many words already have huge numbers of meanings and different ways they can be used, so people are presumably already well equipped to keep track of usage distinctions like this. So the meaning of a word corresponding to genuine usage is protected because it’s actually treated like a separate meaning (as if it would be given a different entry in a dictionary) from the common inflationary usage.

    Second, maybe it’s a mistake to view words like “genius” or “tyrant” as picking out particular levels of insightfulness or oppressiveness (for example) at all. Rather, such words pick out a direction on the corresponding scale and a magnitude, but the magnitude is not absolute at all but relative to the context. Imagine a 1-dimensional vector which can be drawn starting from any point on the number line. People extrapolate an exact position on the scale intended by a given usage of the word using environmental clues. (Thus, the difference between words like “good” and “excellent” can still be understood, even though they are deprived of absolute intensities.) Now, inflation is obviously a non-issue because words do not have particular intensities to begin with. I suppose their magnitudes could still inflate, but it’s not clear that there should be a trend in one direction or the other there.

    Upon further reflection, I think my second hypothesis more just explains general variation in usage and the first hypothesis is a better bet to explain non-inflation (even if you’re thinking without absolute intensities, uses of words by ads and pundits probably still are treated as having lower magnitude in that context–inflation would happen but people track the uses separately and therefore retain their general understanding of the word’s meaning).

  • Celfano

    Casual superlatives seem to infest modern American language, no matter what the topic or object.

    Words like ‘incredible’ or ‘amazing’ are constantly used even in the formal network national news programs for quite unremarkable events & people. What is the last incredible (beyond rational belief) event you came across in your life ?

    Probably stems from the vast marketing & advertising community that now hypes its commercial products via electronic media into every aspect of our daily lives. Marketeers do use such superlatives ‘strategically’, but average people just use them because they somehow become culturally fashionable.

    Same thing for negative adjectives… using extreme characterizations for routine things.
    {Hurricane Irene = “Monster” storm}

    Language fashions more often dominate… rather than strategic word choices.

  • Anonymous Cow

    Exceptionally relevant paper delivering an outstanding viewpoint on this matter.

  • juan

    The epithet “racist” has held a great deal of negative power for many decades now. It does seem to be losing some mojo in recent years.

    For comparison, the “sexist” charge seems to have lost it’s power many years ago.

    Interestingly, I feel that some gay epithets have increased in power as they’ve become verboten. If somebody says it now in an argument they know they are crossing a line, so it’s a good signifier of extreme anger. 15 years ago, “faggot” could be part of macho bantering/insults. Now it’s pretty much just fighting words.

  • Rob

    Robert Musil talks about this in his great novel, “A Man without Qualities” when the description of a racehorse as a genius spins him into crisis. His protagonist’s answer (or hope) was that objective criteria would come to the forefront displacing such concepts as genius or human greatness.

  • Jim

    Your awesome work here is awesome. Awesome, simply awesome.

  • JW

    Louis CK has a bit on this in his latest concert movie, “Hilarious.” The title itself functions as one example of the phenomenon. He argues that often when people respond to hearing about an occurrence with “that’s hilarious” it would be more accurate to simply say “that happened.” He gives a couple of other terms similar treatment. Hilarious, indeed.

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