Our culture’s appetite for superlatives seems to be in decline.
Notwithstanding headlines earlier this year that China is about to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy, there has already been a noticeable drop-off in America’s overall penchant for ostentatious language from what it had been in times past. I don’t know how much of this is attributable to such things as the rise of China or the sobering outcomes of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, but Americans no longer view their place in the world in quite the same way as we have for most of our 125-year reign as the foremost economy on Earth.
One place where this is most evident is in our appetite for superlatives which, in times past, was used wholesale in everything from extolling personal achievement to assigning orders of magnitude across the physical and cultural landscapes.
I’ll cite a few examples.
A geography professor of mine once told me of how grad student friends of his from South Africa, touring the American West in the 1960s, had been struck by how many things were identified by words ending in “est” — largest earthen dam, tallest tree, highest mountain and so forth.
This was later driven home to me by a Canadian geologist friend of whom I had asked if it were true that the Appalachian Mountain Range is the oldest on Earth. His response — “You Yanks! … Everything is always the biggest, the oldest or the greatest” — reminded me of how American almanacs of yesteryear would often list the Mississippi-Missouri river system as the longest river in the world, ignoring the obvious that two waterways combined do not constitute a singular stream.
In rock music, especially, the cultural conversation of the past spoke in terms of there being various musical echelons, with individual entertainers, American or British, often pronounced as the most significant or the greatest of all time. The Who, for instance, was supposedly the loudest band on Earth. Eric Clapton was the greatest guitar player in the world until Jimi Hendrix came along. Ginger Baker was hailed as the foremost drummer.
A couple of weeks after the breakup of the Beatles, I came across an article in the Minneapolis Tribune proclaiming Creedence Clearwater Revival as the world’s No. 1 rock band. Aside from the obviousness of Michael Jackson’s reign as the King of Pop, I’ve since seen few other references to any artist or group being saluted as the undisputed top act in all of music.
I am reminded as well of the greasy spoons of yesteryear with their ubiquitous signs proclaiming the best burger or cup of coffee in the world. Though a few of these may have conveyed a true sense of conviction, for the most part, they were as frivolous as a “World’s Greatest Dad” T-shirt.
In 21st-century America, however, one simply does not see or hear as many swaggering superlatives. But what’s to account for this change in conduct? There are probably a host of reasons, including the Internet which, among other things, may have broadened people’s frame of reference.
Few places in the world, except for America in the 1960s, would have termed a sports championship the Super Bowl. At the individual level, although we debate today whether Kevin Durant or LeBron James is the most dominant player in the NBA, if either were to proclaim themselves “the greatest,” in the fashion of Muhammad Ali or Joe DiMaggio, it would likely be viewed as graceless.
“Generally, it’s a bit silly or even rude these days to assert singular greatness,” Prof. Erin Chapman, historian at George Washington University, explained to me, saying that nowadays Americans tend to aim for multiplicity. “Though in business and politics we’re very much a winner-take-all society,” said Chapman, “outwardly, we are suspect of things that are win-lose.”
Then, too, a lot of these designations were downright inane, akin to the world’s largest ball of twine. Perhaps in the silliness category is where many of these superlative designations truly should have been all along.
John M. Rosenberg, a native of Albert Lea, Minn., is a political and foreign-affairs writer living in Arlington, Va.
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