“I literally died of embarrassment”
Did you, really? Cos you’re still talking to me
This is linguistic harassment
Abusing English with hyperbole
– Paul Roche, “Not Literally”
On the list of things that bring me both mild annoyance and slight amusement, people abusing hyperbole must be pretty close to the top. (Also on the list: rude people on MetroTransit, college freshmen picking up my packs of gum, college freshmen.) Relying on exaggeration to communicate the magnitude of your feeling is not just lazy and ineffective, it dilutes the English language: what could be a robust, full-bodied Dragon’s Milk Stout of an image becomes a limp, watery Mich Golden. Let’s be clear: you have never loved a potato ole, you don’t hate iPad Minis, and exactly zero BuzzFeed articles have ever cost you – nor have they restored – your faith in humanity. Soon we’ll have to double- and triple-down on our adjectives and adverbs just to differentiate the love we have for our spouses from the “love” we have for Boom Chicka Pop.
It is a personal feeling of mine, but one that I hold closely, that we do this not only with feelings and emotions but also with our use of the word “friend.” It wasn’t the Facebook era that taught us to abuse the term (although, surely, that didn’t help matters). A significant percentage of the people we call friends fall short of the full realization of that label. In “The Four Loves,” CS Lewis distinguished friends from companions: companions are people you spend time with, while friends are those with whom you share a special bond. “Friendship,” he wrote, “arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’”
A shared uniqueness is the start of the matter, but a seed doesn’t become a plant until it sprouts. Real friendship must run deeper than mere commonality. Ralph Waldo Emerson includes intense affection in the formula. In his essay on friendship, he said, “The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend, and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words.” But even abundant affection doesn’t complete the picture. Marlene Dietrich famously said, “It’s the friends you can call up a 4 a.m. that matter.” Likewise, the ancient Greek poet Euripides said, “Friends show their love in times of trouble, not in happiness.” If you want to know the magnitude of a friendship, answer the question, “How much would I sacrifice for this person’s benefit?” or, conversely, “How much would they sacrifice for mine?”
Acknowledging that a relationship falls short of friendship feels both impolitic and impolite, especially to Midwestern sensibilities. Perhaps it is less a fact of abusing the language with hyperbole and more a matter of our language failing us. What is the name for a person that is more than an acquaintance but less than a friend? Lewis used companion, but that word has more ambiguity than “friend” does. Comrade feels too communist; buddy, too informal. Maybe “friend” is the best we’ve got. But there is the sort of “friend” we greet with vague awkwardness when we see them in public, and there is the sort that inspires “troops of gentle thoughts” when we think of them. It’d be nice to be able to differentiate between the two without the addition of adverbs.