Internet hyperbole is nothing new. We say we’re rolling on the floor laughing when we’re barely smiling. We use exclamation points like they’re worth nothing!!!!!!! We say we’re dying. DYING! That video where the hamster puts its baby into the hamster wheel and then starts running and the baby hamster tumbles around? That video caused us to stop breathing and our heart to stop beating. We expired.
We may be reaching Peak Enthusiasm.
“The words we use go through inflationary trends,” says Gretchen McCulloch an “Internet Linguist” who blogs at All Things Linguistics. “For example, hyperbolic adjectives like awesome, great, wonderful—these gradually undergo inflationary trends. So, great used to be really good, or amazing. There was Alfred the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander the Great. Now if you say great to someone it’s barely a cut of good.”
Even numbers are getting pulled into the hyperbolic vortex. There’s a burgeoning form of exaggeration that we use on the Internet and IRL: the percentages we cite when we’re expressing affirmation. 100 percent is no longer enough. 1,000 percent is where you want to be.
We’re spewing out high percentages without the enthusiasm to back it up!
In 2017, President Trump told CIA staffers he was “1,000 percent with” them. Last year, Alec Baldwin said he would “1,000 percent win” against Trump in the 2020 election. ESPN’s Steven A. Smith said that former L.A. Clippers game analyst Bruce Bowen was “1,000 percent right” to criticize Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard. A source told People magazine that Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively are “1,000 percent solid.”
How did we get here? In the middle part of the 20th century, the highest possible percentage enthusiasm was 110 percent, but that was strictly reserved for how much effort you were willing to expend on a task—especially if you were a Lombardi-era Green Bay Packer.
Maximum affirmation percentage (MAP) remained stable through the latter half of the last century and even declined slightly to 100 percent between 2010 and 2014. In 2013, if you asked the dude in the cube next to you, “Should we go to get a salad?” Following the rules of statistics, he probably replied, “100 percent.” Which meant that going to get a salad was a fully good idea with zero downside.
But then we started ticking up. By the spring of 2016, maximum affirmation percentage had risen to 1,000 percent.
Hey, man, is Sweetgreen’s spicy cashew dressing better than the lime cilantro jalapeno vinaigrette?
“1,000 percent yes.”
Affirmation inflation (AI) quickly pushed the MAP to 10,000 percent last year. It’s now at 100,000 percent and threatening to rise further. Someone I was emailing with said she “100,000% agreed” with me about a minor point. I fear AI may soon mean we’re seeing a MAP of 1 million percent. Or even 1 billion.
“One of the problems with hyperbole is that it wears out the more you use it.”
Percentages are on a “hyperbolic treadmill,” says McCulloch. “One of the problems with hyperbole is that it wears out the more you use it. The first time you reach for a new word to hyperbolize, it’s really vivid and exciting. The first time someone says, ‘1000 percent,’ it’s like, Wow, that sounds really exciting, but then it loses its excitement because we’ve used it so much.”
And then it moves down the treadmill and we bump up the hyperbole. We’re spewing out high percentages without the enthusiasm to back it up! This could lead to a feeling shortage, which could cause numbness and general ennui. We have an affirmation deficit, and we must begin the difficult process of devaluing our affirmations.
“Linguists as a whole are very aware that language changes and has always changed. It’s people who are self-appointed guardians of the language with no verifications, only a sense of self-importance, who say ‘Oh, this is bad.’”
(I thought we were a team here, Gretchen.)
“You’ll probably just end up with fake exaggerated numerals, like a gazillion percent or a bazillion percent. Often what happens in that case is gazillion percent becomes tired, and people go back to the original one as a vintage use. Sometimes people will stop using this particular domain of metaphor entirely for a while and rediscover it, fresh again. It depends.”
(You’re being too measured and reasonable, Gretch!)
You know who the real victims are? Our children and grandchildren. Do you want them to live in a world where they must express sexdecillion to octodecillion percentage agreement and enthusiasm about enjoying a marginal song or favoring a toothless political position?
1,000 percent you do not.
Anyway, as tempting as it is to reset all at once, such a drastic move could destabilize our affirmation economy. So let’s all agree to cap our enthusiasm at a healthy 500 percent. We’ll monitor the situation, reserving the right to further downgrade percentages as needed.
I am 1 f–ktillion percent serious.
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