Taking Language to the Extreme

Of late, the extremes that we use in language caught my attention: best vs. worst, highest vs. lowest, most vs. least, and always vs. never. The flexibility of language extremes makes them so fascinating. Sometimes, you don’t want the thing described as the most or the highest. Other times, you’ll refuse to settle for anything that isn’t the best.

When we choose extreme language, we’re saying something. We’re taking a position. In the political world, some people will never vote for certain candidates. In the business world, shareholders only want the highest return on their investment. In our personal lives, we only want the best for loved ones.

Extreme language can lead to extreme behavior. Consider the words of Robert F. Kennedy:

What is objectionable, what is dangerous, about extremists is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents. (link)

Certain subjects and actions seem to attract extreme language and behavior (religion, politics, anyone?). But what are we really saying when we use extreme language or resort to extreme behavior? What wiggle room do we leave ourselves once we’ve crossed that line?

Growing up, I regularly told people, usually my parents, I’d hate them forever for some slight. Luckily, my parents ignored me and my childish certainty that I meant what I said. I appear to have discarded this habit and can’t recall the last time I told someone I hated him. While I can’t claim I’m totally above extremes, I do know what stops my tongue and my hand is the thought expressed so eloquently by Kennedy: extremism easily slides into intolerance. However, we can’t ignore the flexibility of intolerance, too. Should one ever tolerate racism or sexism?

That’s the underlying power of language. We have the ability to shape it into something of value. Language extremes have a place, but we’ve got stop pretending that using it doesn’t bear consequences. For example, doing a Google search for “I’ll never,” returned 1.4 million results. Of those 1.4 million, I wonder how many people had to take back their “I’ll never.” I think I might be of them. Are you?



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February 2008
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