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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Superlative Supplements For Valentines Day (And Any Day)

(himmelskratzer/Flickr)

(himmelskratzer/Flickr)

Tired of using the same old adjectives “amazing” and “awesome?”

Author Arthur Plotnik has complied an entire book of alternatives “Better Than Great: A Plentitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives.”

“Superlatives confer extreme value on something, we need them to celebrate the worthiest things in our lives,” Plotnik said. “When we use the same superlatives — awesome, amazing, unbelievable and incredible — we’re not celebrating anything.”

This interview originally aired in August 2011

Book Excerpt: ‘Better Than Great’

By: Arthur Plotnik

Introduction: When Worlds Coolide

From the category “Cool,” encompassing terms meaning extremely hip or with-it, and interjections proclaiming coolness.

'Better Than Great' by Arthur Plotnik

‘Better Than Great’ by Arthur Plotnik

Sometimes I imagine other civilizations watching us, observing our language, and borrowing the word cool to describe the myriad things that tickle their antennae. That’s how adaptable and irresistible cool is, a 1,500-year-old term that means somewhat less than cold and, since about 1950, somewhat more than “hot.”

As early as 1930, African-Americans were acclaiming hot stuff as cool, but in the ’50s the word acquired a nuance beyond the merely stylish and exciting. Among jazz musicians and finger-popping followers, it came to signify an understated soulfulness, a mellow quality calling for a restrained, discriminating style of acclaim. Lexicographers Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner said it implied “intellectual, psychological, and/or spiritual excitement and satisfaction, negation of mere obvious, physical, sensual excitement.”

To be cool was a special thing, earned like flight wings, unlike the facile kull or way cool. Cool people decreed what was cool, whether bop, beat poetry, or a tie so narrow it was almost invisible. But like other punchy utterances, the word caught fire and in the next decades became a colloquial term of general approbation. A Secretary of State called foreign policy cool. Cornflakes, dad wearing a dress, and the neighbor’s house exploding were now cool, according to television spawn of Beavis and Butthead.

It was hardly the first time a superlative lost its specificity: Grand once meant preeminent; swell, a fashionable dresser. But rarely does a popular slang term go general and then hang on to its popularity for what might be—in cool’s case—indefinitely.

Even as universal and enduring a term as cool, however, needs its synonyms, if only for novelty of expression. And since novelty is brief, especially in the digi-sphere, trend-conscious acclaimers (including me) wait like chicks with open beaks for the next stylish or funky candidate.

For this category I’ve selected current synonyms, recent ones, plus some still-spry retro items. Of course by the time you read this, current may be retro and retro current; so it goes. I’ve also intensified terms (including cool) in a number of ways and suggested various new phrase-formations to trigger your own inventiveness.

As you go down the list, you may be as puzzled as I am as to how certain words have earned their street cred. Single-syllable length seems to help (dope, tight, phat, fly, def, etc.), as does being introduced by a rap or teen-movie star (fetch). Clever shortenings (leet for elite) and touches of rebelliousness (gangsta, ill) count for something, though not as much as in our next category, “Wicked Cool.” But meaning? It doesn’t always figure. Don’t try to make more of the superlative book, for example, than that a certain numerical texting code pops it up before the intended cool.

You can say book and I’ll say bangin’. But I believe that those other civilizations out there, the ones eyeing us, still favor cool—perhaps even calling us Planet Cool, our hotheadedness notwithstanding.

The List (S’s only)
savvy and saucy (—Shaun White)
scary cool
schway/shway
screams (cool and fast)
serious cool
shibby
sick/sic
slammin’
slick
sly
smokin’
so cool he’s/she’s evaporating
spiked
sprezzatura cool (I.: makes it look easy)
spunky
spunky cool
squeaky cool
standup
starkers cool (nakedly)
staunch
stoopid cool
straight-line cool
straight-up cool
street-smart
suave
superabundantly cool
superconductively cool
sweet
swift

(Copyright Arthur Plotnik, 2011)


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  • http://www.jerroldrichards.com/ Jerrold Richards

    What a very amazing piece! Awesome! I’m like, wow, very going to watch what I say totally from now on.

  • http://twitter.com/AdeleCulp Adele Culp

    LOVE IT! (oh – is that overused?)
    Clearly in need of this book.  So glad for this airing.
    I overlooked the first.
    Can’t wait to dig in with my 12 year old.

  • Jim

    Robin mentioned some listener objected to qualifying ‘unique’ since it either is or isn’t.

    I disagree.  Consider these 4 unique birds: Robin, Blue Jay, Penguin, Cardinal.

    Clearly one is more unique than all the others.

  • Leitmotiv

    Where’s the audio for this segment?

    • Rachel Rohr, Here & Now

      Hi Leitmotiv, The audio is now posted. Sorry for the delay. Enjoy!

  • Mitesh Master

    The guest praised the youth for their ability to invent new superlatives, but even the use of new superlatives are instantly subject to the flaws of bleaching and emphasis especially by their creators. These terms are often invented to separate one generation from another and then dressed up with attitude (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure comes to mind as does the Step Up franchise).

    Secondly, if the sole purpose was solely to be linguistically accurate, then he’d be right in his analysis. But sometimes perhaps insisting that ‘amazing’ ought only be used when one is trapped in a maze might make you come off as a little bit douchey. Sorry, I mean a know it all and a malcontent.

    Language changes with the times and the people who use it. To restore it to its proper place seems like a fight against the ever changing Zeitgeists. Good luck!

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/MWWXP7OB5VQX2PNPCKDZSIEZNI Jack

      “The guest praised the youth for their ability to invent new superlatives…”

      Admittedly, I missed a few minutes of the interview, but every time I heard Robin try to float the idea that youth are on the vocab cutting-edge, the guest either ignored her or commented that aside from a few vogue words (“wicked,” etc.), modern people are linguistically bankrupt.

      My opinion of him fell the more he talked.

  • JayJ

    I think I just listened to an older version of Sheldon Cooper lol. What a douche.

  • Marmo

    Wow, this guy would be SO much fun to be around at a fireworks display, the birth of a baby, the Grand Canyon, a skydive, or on a mountain summit :)

  • Tom Strasser

    Plotnik never used a single a superlative in the whole interview.  A superlative is a form of an adjective.  For example “awesome” is not a superlative, but the ‘positive’ form of the adjective.  There is the ‘comparative’ form “more awesome” and then the ‘superlative’ form “most awesome”.  Not once did Plotnik use a superlative.  The only person that did was the listener who wrote on facebook about “unique”.  This is curious adjective in that it only exists in the superlative form (it has no positive or comparative forms).  I found the interview very disappointing because it was apparent that the author simply does not understand what a superlative adjective is.  

    • http://www.freshsuperlatives.com/ Baronplot

      As I note in the book, Tom, I use the word “superlative” in the broader, commonly understood sense of “terms indicating high or utmost degree,” as in “I’ve run out of superlatives for this feat.” In their strict grammatical sense, superlatives would be a  less than ravishing topic for the general reader.  

  • Alison Moore

    I loved this interview and was delighted someone else was unhappy with his brain’s tendency to get stuck in the ruts created by overused and omnipresent words. I’ve longed to retrain my brain to distinguish, linguistically, between things I find pleasing and things that are truly enchanting. If I keep saying awesome, or cool, or amazing about everything, it feels like the real gradations in my responses to things becomes lost. When certain words are used rarely, they gain more power. I think teachers (and perhaps parents) would be well advised to keep exceptional praise for exceptional work. And I can’t help mentioning how bland the judgments on TV contests like American Idol become after the 10,000th rating of “awesome.” A copy of this book on all TV judges’ tables would benefit everyone.

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