Word Watch: Yes, it’s the honest-to-God truth — ‘absolutely’ is often less than absolute

Member Group : James Edwards: Word Watch

Host: "You’re not going to bail her out of financial difficulty?"
Female caller: "Absolutely."

Girl: "Mom, remember when we had such a good time at _______ Park?"
Mom: "Absolutely!"

Part of the wisdom received by me as a youth was an experience of my older brother at his school bus stop. He came home one day reporting that a kid who lived near the stop liked to hang around the kids waiting for the bus telling them lies about the things he did.

"How did you know he was lying?" we younger ones asked our brother.

"Simple," he answered. "Right before he would lie, he would always say, ‘Honest to God!’ That’s how we could tell."

A valuable lesson, it opened up a window into human frailty contained in language: When someone tells you something they might be communicating its opposite.

Try these: "You have to spend to save!"

"Painless dentistry!"

"Free checking."

There’s currently a hip, one-word rejoinder in the affirmative: Absolutely.

Am I the only one who hears this sonorous sound of agreement, four syllables to say "Yes," as not an honest, unqualified utterance?

Where did it come from?

Perhaps we have our friends in advertising to thank, due to a long, and very successful, campaign on behalf of a brand of vodka, Absolut. Everyone knows the shape of their bottle by now, because of their glossy print ads which are as subliminal as booze ads can be.

Absolutely in Webster’s is an adverb, as is indicated by its "ly" ending, but as an adverb it only modifies other modifiers, like, "That point is absolutely critical to my argument." Here it means wholly, or entirely critical to it. That’s not the usage I’m concerned with.

Webster’s includes an additional definition, as an interjection. What’s an interjection? An interjection, again according to Webster’s, is an utterance of emotion: "Ugh." "Ick." "Indeed," "Aaarrrgggh!" and now, "Absolutely!"

Yes, when I receive a response to an inquiry that seems to be seeking affirmation, I’m obviously going to be encouraged by an affirmative rejoinder. But I don’t want a respondent to my question to be speaking out of their emotion.

If they must, they must, I suppose, but I want it out of their thoughts, their reasoning, their analysis. A response only of their emotions most often will be only to please me, not to edify me.

This use of "absolutely," as a universally positive interjection, actually limits its utility. "Can you stand by this agreement?’ "Absolutely."

It sounds affirmative, but have they analyzed it? If it’s an interjection, and it always is, they haven’t thought it through; they’re emoting.

Reject it; it’s as useful to you as, "Honest to God." It reflects on the user, but not the circumstances.

"Absolutely" is high-powered assurance served up by low-powered people without the staying power to back it up. It’s all loud thunder, bright lightning ? and no rain. My instincts tell me that it has passed its peak as a widely used word of assurance, and it will cede its popularity to another in the medium term.

James M. Edwards lives in Squirrel Hill.

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