british overstatement

The British are masters and mistresses of understatement, one is told. Yeah, well, maybe.

For your consideration, my current list of most hated, painfully overused words:
  • essential
  • fanatical
  • excellence
I've grumped about excellence once before, and I'm sure that it's come in from US corporate-speak. So let's concentrate on the adjectives, which seem to represent the full extent of many advertising copywriters' adjectival vocabularies.

The bus that goes past my house says that it offers Essential Travel for our City. If I weren't boycotting the word, I could shop at Essential Records or Pet Essential or let (AmE prefers rent) property at Time Essential and listen to The Essential Mix on Radio 1 or read the dozen or so publications that say they are the essential guide to the city and what's going on in it before heading over to the Essential Festival, essentially.

If fanatical is less used, it's only because there seems to be a rule that it must only be used in alliterative phrases. The Odeon cinema (AmE prefers movie theater) chain is Fanatical About Film. Upper Crust sandwich shops are Fanatical about Freshness. And everyone else is Fanatical about Football.

Another relevant example is brilliant (informally, brill), which in recent years was the overstater of choice among young people. Now it's amazing, which I hadn't noticed until a Swedish colleague pointed it out. We were in my office when a student came and asked to borrow a book. Our interaction went something like this:
Me: Here you go.

Student: Amazing! Thanks!

Me: You can give it back to me at seminar.

S: You're amazing! Thanks!

SwedCol: [muffled giggles]

These are not the words of an understating culture--and yet they are so repetitively and unimaginatively used. One can't really find too much fault with the young people, as youth everywhere get infected by the buzzwords of their age. But the advertisers? Aren't they supposed to make us want to buy their product, rather than wanting to track them down in their offices and bludgeon them with thesauruses?

Could it be that overstatement is so foreign to British culture that those who try to do it cannot help but do it badly? Perhaps overstatement should be left to Americans, who do it so effortlessly. Mission Accomplished!


  1. Massive. Brilliant. Lovely.

    (My list of excessives used excessively.)

    Love your site. I've learned a lot already, and will be able to talk to my plumber much more brilliantly now. I remember when he first called, and wanted to pop round and have a look at the shower. I insisted that wasn't necessary, as I was positive it was leaking and actually needed to be fixed, not merely looked at.

  2. I was surprised at the use of the word "massive". I seem to recall that word being overused here in the US in the 1980's. I own a CD by the English group Massive Attack, and have had several people (Americans) snicker at the name, I guess because it sounds so unsubtle.

  3. Ah, how could I forget massive? Thanks! And don't forget the Staines Massive:

    Americans might be snickering at the name Massive Attack because it seems to be missing the word heart in the middle.

  4. Now it makes sense! I guess "massive attack" in Britain would be taken to mean massive heart attack. Here it would be interpreted more literally, and so perhaps sounds a bit pretentious to an American ear.

  5. Actually, I was saying that as an American I expect it to refer to a heart attack--e.g.:

    HOUSTON -- Former Enron Corp. chairman and founder Ken Lay died of a massive heart attack early Wednesday, KPRC Local 2 reported.

    It may not have occurred to you, but it might to other Americans.

    The other reason to snigger at the name is that the music is pretty mellow for such a name. I don' t think it's pretentious--just not what one might expect from the name...

  6. The two people that laughed at it (the CD cover) hadn't heard the music - I suppose they thought it was the name of a heavy metal band, and were laughing at the obviousness of it. My guess.

  7. Personally I'm mistress of the quantified overstatement - 'It's really quite good' or 'It's a bit terrible', which I think is also a British trait - overpoliteness and an unwillingness to show off?

  8. my american colleagues use (overuse) awesome

  9. May I suggest absolutely as another entry in the overused adjectives compendium? Particularly when it is spoken with emphasis on at least two of the first three syllables? (Ab! So! Lutely!) I hear this two, three times a week.

    Additionally, I have a vague recollection - from my time as a temp - of agency staff overusing all manner of enthusiastic adjectives. There was someting Fantastic! and Super! or Brilliant! in every conversation. I'd get off the phone feeling exhausted. Now I know why.

  10. hey, I read your blog, it's very knowlegeble.

    Read how to greet in Indian Culture.

  11. I know this was quite an old post, but what about "passionate"? It is apparently impossible to talk about one's food-related business without stating that one is "passionate about food" (as a Frenchwoman, I can't help but snigger when such a statement comes from British folks, but that could be me being mean). And of course, every product or dress item is "gorgeous", not to mention "vibrant" atmospheres absolutely everywhere (including in a deserted after 6 pm dreadfully conservative suburbian area).
    Frankly, I sometimes wonder if I didn't move to an alternate-universe Britain where the proverbial art of understatement has been replaced by Mediterranean effusive communication style combined with American (and dare I say somewhat-immature-sounding) bubbling enthusiasm about, well, everything.
    I blame marketing consultants, the reasoning being, I guess, if you can't be "passionate" about your own food, why suspicious would-be customers should bother to buy it?

  12. I think your student probably said 'amazing' twice because she was worried on an unconscious level that she'd be rude if she didn't intensify her speech. Just 'thanks' would sound rude.

  13. This is one of my pet-peeves, I find that people overuse these kinds of words so much that they start to lose their emphasis. Then when I have something to say where such a word IS appropriate I have to use modifiers such as 'truly' or 'actually' to indicate that the awesome building I saw wasn't just sort of nice but actually filled me with awe.

    I'd also like to submit another over used word (often on the internet); epic

  14. As an American high school teacher, I have noticed 3 words that are used in just about every sentence coming from a Gen-Z kid: "lit", "vibes", and "trippin'". I have never heard this slang come up on British media, so I assume all three are American inventions?


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)