It’s a verbal virus that’s spreading unchecked on the street, on radio and in print.
Want to sound certain? Want to remove all doubt? Want to be a news commentator?
It has become the standard reply to every question or comment. It clings like lint to our conversations.Are we in a recession senator? “Absolutely not.” Was Shlomo Carlebach a musical genius? “Absolutely.” Want syrup on those pancakes? Absolutely.
It’s even reached the highest office in the land. When President Obama was recently asked by a Pakistani journalist if he read Urdu poetry, he said: “Absolutely.”
We hear of videos that go viral. But why has this word, absolutely, taken off?
And why, at a time of so much uncertainty, are so many people so absolutely sure of so much?
The question caught some habitual users of absolutely by surprise. But they had their theories.
Jeff Benanto, a manager at a marketing company in Boston, Massachusetts, says he didn’t even know he was overusing the word until he was teased by his sister and brother-in-law.
He says it finally hit him when he was recently having dinner with his family. Someone asked him if he wanted stuffing with his turkey.
Benanto says he and others are using the word so much because it’s reassuring. He says people don’t know if their 401(k) will be secure; their children’s toys free of lead or if their favorite public figure is going to be exposed as a hypocrite.
But using absolutely makes one feel as if there is something someone can count on, even if one has doubts, he says.
“There’s a certainty in absolutely,” Benanto says. “Even if you don’t absolutely mean it, you need to express it and feel it like you mean it.”
Another absolutist also says that the constant use of the word is a sign of the times.
Liz Nicklos, an account executive in Minneapolis, Minnesota, says she used to respond to e-mail requests with “will do,” or “great,” or “sounds good.”
Now she uses, absolutely, for virtually all e-mail requests.
“Absolutely sounds confident and sure,” Nicklos says. “In times of ambivalence, people could use a bit of semantic surety. When you use it, you just feel more confident.”
When Absolutely Took Off
An etymologist can trace the origin and development of a word, but who can identify the moment when absolutely took off?
Rex Bossert, an assistant dean at the University of California, Irvine’s School of Law, thinks he can. He blames O.J.
He says he noticed people starting favoring the word during the O.J. Simpson murder trial. He points to Simpson’s plea. When Simpson was asked at his 1994 arraignment on twin murder charges if he was guilty, he didn’t just say, not guilty.
Simpson said: “Absolutely, 100 percent not guilty.”
In the court of public opinion, celebrities now know that people are cynical, Bossert says. They expect spin and deception. Invoking absolutely is someone’s attempt to say, I’m not like the other guys, he says.
“In a time where there is so much mendacity and prevarication, a simple affirmation such as ‘yes’ doesn’t quite cut it anymore,” he says.
It’s also a way for pundits, bloggers and talk-show hosts to elevate themselves during the 24-hours news cycle, says Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture history at Syracuse University in New York City.
In the rapid-fire exchanges between debaters on news shows, “absolutely” is the linguistic version of an exclamation point, Thompson says.
“The word, absolutely, is like saying that this is positively true — this is inarguable,” Thompson says.
Will constant use of the word, though, drain it of all of its meaning? Maybe.
A wise man once said, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no; anything beyond this is evil.”
Was he right?