Here’s a new award for you: Jeffee’s Excellent English Speaker (s)Hero (“JEESH”) award. Although it’s pretty clear what it takes to win this award (unlike an Oscar, for example) but to give you an idea of bad word use that will absolutely disqualify a speaker for consideration, here’s a good example: “absolutely” as the response to a question where “yes” would be the appropriate answer. This rampant absolutely use is annoying because — if you think about it — there are very few things in life where “absolutely” is really proper as a response. It just sounds stupid unless you are expressing the answer to a problem in mathematics and/or Newtonian physics. Everyone knows that if you try to fly out the window, your body will obey the laws of gravity and fall to the ground. Absolutely, without question. So, why do so many English speakers, when answering a question about good restaurants, the actions of the Federal Reserve, or reasons for teenage pregnancies, etc., feel inclined to respond with “absolutely!” Mind you, these same responders probably spent 15 minutes that morning looking for their car keys or got to work and found they left their wallet/glasses/Ipod ear buds in their other jacket.
My own theory is that, for some, particularly those of the “talking heads” persuasion, four syllables carry more credibility than the one lonely syllable in “yes.” If you need a little emphasis and live here in Texas, of course, all you need is one more syllable with a, “Hell, yes!!!” But those folks who inhabit our televisions and radios throw around these four syllable affirmatives as if they were throwing beads off a mardi gras float.
Aside from actual mathematicians and physicists like Stephen Hawking, few individuals merit a pass to use “absolutely,” in my books. One is Zbignew Brezenski (former National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter) who earned his absolutely credentials on the Morning Joe program with a burst of breathtaking certitude. In reference to Joe Scarborough’s comment about the Bush administration’s lack of blame for anything on the Gaza strip, Brezenski replied: “You know, you have such a stunningly superficial knowledge of what went on that it’s almost embarrassing to listen to you.” I still can’t decide which part of that sentence was more lethal, “stunningly superficial knowledge” or “it’s almost embarrassing to listen to you.” Either on their own would have been enough, but taken together, I still marvel that Joe’s head didn’t blow up!!
And Oscar Wilde, were he alive, might be allowed an absolutely here and there. Even Ziggy Brezenski would admire Wilde’s assuredness: “The longer I live, the more I see that I am never wrong about anything, and that all the pains that I have so humbly taken to verify my notions have only wasted my time.”
But most of us should resist the urge to be “absolutely” sure about too many things. For example, you might say you will absolutely never kill another living thing (or at least nothing bigger than a cockroach). But, what about the situation where lifting the cover of the toilet bowl brings you face to face with a wet, beady-eyed rat? And when you put on gloves and try to pick it up to take outside and it bites you? If you listened to NPR’s This American Life last Sunday at http://www.thisamericanlife.org/ you would understand how short the path is between an absolute pacifist and cold-blooded killer. I’ll bet you that prior to his rat experience, the guy in that radio story would have affirmed to the world at large, “I absolutely will never kill anything in my toilet bowl.” But, all the same, he became the Toilet Bowl Rat Killer!
The good news is that I’m hearing “absolutely” a lot less these days. Maybe with our economic woes, it felt wasteful to use so many syllables. Or maybe those heads have begun to realize how you can paint yourself into a corner with “absolutely” and, oh by the way, we now know we really didn’t know as much as we thought we did. So, nowadays I am hearing a more back-to-basics affirmation, a simple, but effective, “yes.”
Now that you have an idea concerning standards for the Jeesh awards please forward me your nominee for consideration, or, stay tuned to hear about the candidates of my choosing. Is this going to be fun or what?! Did I hear an absolutely???!!