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Words Matter

Thoughts on superlatives—love and hate— and how they incite our emotions and actions.

by Deborah Boerner Ein, Editor

Yes, it’s another column about words. I got to thinking about superlatives and a game we played as kids. Growing up with an older sister and brother, all of us born in less than four years’ time (God bless you, Mom!), I enjoyed a close-knit relationship with my siblings that ranged from getting along famously to outright squabbles—and everything in between. One of the best things about the closeness in our ages was that we enjoyed the same games and toys, even when we had to make our own fun. (We’re boomers and this was long before the age of video games and computers.)

Sis and I would play Barbies until she decided she was too old for dolls, and all three of us played trucks in a sandwash at the bottom of the hill in our backyard. There, we crafted an elaborate village of dirt roads perfect for driving our Tonka dump trucks. Board games were a good way to spend rainy Saturdays; the Game of Life and Monopoly were favorites that could keep us occupied for hours. Password was a favorite of mine, of course, having been the remote control for Mom during afternoon game shows while the older ones were at school. Mom and I rarely missed a day without Allen Ludden and Password.

I also have great memories of the hours we all spent just fooling around, doing what kids did back then, making our own fun and chatting it up, sometimes getting into arguments. There was one Christmas that one of us got knocked off the arm of a chair and into the Christmas tree, knocking it to the floor, tinsel and all.

Another recollection is of the three of us having a talk about what foods we liked best. Liked, not loved. We all agreed that you couldn’t love food, only people. I think of this often when I hear people say that they love a certain food or object. Yes, you can really, really like pizza or McDonald’s, but love, we decided, is a word and a feeling reserved for other human beings.

Hate wasn’t a part of our lives, thankfully, but conversely, hate should be reserved for objects and not people. We can dislike others and strongly disagree with them, but that’s as far as it should go. This got me to thinking about hate in the world today and how we’ve become so polarized that there seems no room for like and dislike, agree and disagree, only love and hate.

Those early thoughts on superlatives spilled over into my life’s work. As an editor, I’ve learned that to label something as the best or the worst is rarely accurate. When I catch writers doing so, I edit to “one of the best/worst.” Besides the superlative label not being true, it’s not leaving room for the improved/better or the worse scenarios that also exist in our world.

It’s like the BFF (Best Friend Forever) trend. By calling someone your bestie, that elevates one person over all your other friends. Early on, I advised my daughter that it’s better to have lots of good friends and downplayed the idea of a best friend. Many people choose to call several friends their BFFs, which makes it then a matter of semantics. Still, words matter.

The problem with superlatives is the emotion and polarizing effects they can have on us. Hate has become the mantra of many individuals and groups. Hate triggers anger, and anger breeds a whole host of negative reactions inside and outside of the body. Letting go of anger, forgiving, moving forward—these are the actions that will solve our problems.

There’s only one superlative that has ever worked wonders, and it can easily be a panacea for problems in the world today.

That word is love.

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Editor's Note