Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Sublative

In this season of ratcheted rhetoric, when candidates and commentators are flinging superlatives about like candy, it’s important to try to restore balance to the language. Toward that end, we want to document and popularize a little known linguistic showpiece … the sublative.

Thinking back to high school, you may remember learning about the superlative … that form of adjective that indicates the most extreme condition of something. A movie may be good, but not as good as one that’s better. Nothing, however, is as good as the best movie. That’s why the MPA gives awards for Best Picture and Best Performance By an Actress in a Leading Role and Best Guy Who Sweeps the Film Clippings Up From the Cutting Room Floor. (Actually, there are no film clippings with digital movies, but try telling that to the Guys Who Sweep union!)

So with awards and competitions all around us, we naturally give a lot of attention to bests and other superlatives. But there’s also a linguistic converse of this. And no, it’s not worst, which is really just the best at being bad.

No, the linguistic converse of the the superlative is the sublative. To recognize it, note that superlative adjectives frequently end with -est: best, smartest, hairiest, etc. Similarly, sublative adjectives often end with -ish: good-ish, smart-ish, hairy-ish, and so on. And just as superlatives mean “to an extreme degree,” sublatives suggest a more bland reaction, a kind of verbal meh.

  • “That book was fantastic!”
  • “It was fantastic-ish.”

  • “Wasn’t that dinner delicious?”
  • “It was delicious-ish.”
NOTE: Be careful not to mistake “delicious-ish” for “delish.” The latter is just a presumptuous little abbreviation.

So next time you feel overwhelmed by the intense-ish language that spews from the mouths of brash-ish politicians and know-it-all-ish commentators, think careful-ish-ly about this.

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