Pope Francis has declared war on adjectives.
In a speech to his Vatican communications team, he urged them to communicate with reality, without sweetening the message with adjectives or adverbs. Use nouns, he said. They have weight. He urged them to abjure adjectives because he is, he said, allergic to them. And in saying that, he fell into the very trap he wanted his communications team to avoid.
Of course the Pope is not literally allergic to adjectives. His eyes don't turn pink and his airways don't constrict when someone says 'isn't it a gorgeous day?'. He was using hyperbole – exaggeration as a rhetorical device to make his point. Far, far worse than using adjectives.
But I applaud him for trying to get journalists and writers and press corps back into the realm of calm and dispassionate debate. I'm pretty sure that everyone in the media could be accused of over-egging the omelette in their stories.
Because we live in a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week news cycle, stories have to stand out and grab the readers or the listeners or the viewers attention. Using strong adjectives and hyperbole helps the media do that.
I'm sure you can think of numerous examples. What used to be a bit of rain and wind is now a "weather bomb". We have "climate emergencies", instead of a need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. People are always described as being "outraged" when, in reality, they're probably just a bit brassed off. Criticism is "searing"; research is "ground-breaking"; revelations are "shocking" – you know what I mean.
It's no longer enough for journalists and broadcasters to tell the story. They (we) have to tart it up and make it punchy and attention grabbing so it will stand out from all the other information that's bombarding us every second, every minute, every hour of the day. We get louder and louder, more and more histrionic and in the end, giving 100 per cent isn't enough. It has to be 1000 per cent, or 10,000 per cent and in this ever escalating war of words, we end up heading towards mutually assured destruction where nobody believes anything they read and words become meaningless.
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To be fair, this amping up of language is something we're all guilty of. "I'm starving!" Really? Are you? Hungry, perhaps? "Oh, my god, where were you? I had to wait for ages!" Ages means a distinct period of history. Ten minutes doesn't count as an epoch. It's as if we've all become overheated, febrile teenagers in the way we talk to one another.
I know I do it all the time. In my world, everything's amazing or wonderful or awesome or fabulous. To differentiate between people or events that are more amazing or wonderful than the other, I have to resort to "so amazing" or "absolutely fabulous". I'm going to run out of room soon and have to start right back at the beginning with "what a nice man" (as opposed to him being "amazing" on first meeting) and "I had a pleasant time" (instead of "thank you, that was fabulous!").
The Daily Mail, which is the journal of record for all things hyperbolic, has to use CAPS to make its adjectives STAND OUT in a paper crowded with them. I love reading the headlines aloud, shouting out the capitalised words, and I discovered this is a sport enjoyed around the world once I started googling headlines.
We all need to calm the farm. We all have to pull back a little and stop catastrophising and over dramatising and start putting things into their proper perspective.
I know popes are supposed to preach on poverty and hunger and human rights and some people have been surprised that Pope Francis has taken a strong stand on language. But he's right. Words are incredibly powerful and we should respect them. I'm going to try to leave the adjectives to the Kardashians and pare my vocabulary down to the essentials – and keep my adjectives in my back pocket for when I really need them.