Unnatural extremes
West Coast Editor,
February 2004

This is an extreme column on word usage. In fact, it might be the ultimate extreme column. I know if I put “extreme” and/or “ultimate,” before “column” it’s bound to be more impressive, regardless of what’s in it.
After all, we have TV shows like Extreme Makeover and extreme sports of all kinds.  The same conspicuous ubiquity applies to “ultimate,” as in the 2002 TV movie Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star, or the Rocky Mountaineer passenger train service’s boast of an “ultimate dining experience.”
In this day of fatuous advertising and PR flaks, words are abused and overused according to anyone’s self interest. “Extreme” and “ultimate” are superlatives that connote the farthest limit or highest degree of something, but of late, thanks largely to the sporting world, they’ve been debased to mean little more than emphatic variants of “very [something]”
“Extreme skiing” is virtually the same as “very dangerous skiing.” The latter is preferable, since we can’t really prove the extremity of skiing. Besides, who’s to say that “extreme” equals “dangerous?” Extreme skiing might ultimately be associated with competitive nude skiing, although that would also entail an element of danger.
The point is we are letting another superlative go downhill. At one time “nice” meant “precise” now it is a wan word for pleasant. The top stars and models have been super-sized, and we are inundated with prattle about this or that icon or idol.
Icons are cold, stylized representations and are usually associated with Eastern Orthodox religious paintings. Idols are usually images of a deity to be worshipped, although the first recorded figurative use of an adored person dates to 1562.
Nevertheless, we have the pretentious, vapid TV show American (or Canadian) Idol, which implies we should prostrate ourselves before the winner of an amateur singing contest.
It will take a superlative effort of all editors to bring these words back up from debasement.