Wednesday, May 16, 2012


War Against the Superlative Degree

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals (May 18, 1833):
The Italians use the Superlative too much. Mr. Landor calls them the nation of issimi. A man, to tell me that this was the same thing I had before, said, "È l'istessissima cosa;" and at the trattoria, when I asked if the cream was good, the waiter answered, "Stupendo."
Id. (December 3, 1836):
I have been making war against the superlative degree in the rhetoric of my fair visitor. She has no positive degree in her description of characters & scenes. You would think she had dwelt in a museum where all things were extremes & extraordinary. Her good people are very good, her naughty so naughty that they cannot be eaten. But beside the superlative of her mind, she has a superlative of grammar which is suicidal & defeats its end. Her minds are "most perfect" "most exquisite" & "most masculine." I tell her the positive degree is the sinew of speech, the superlative is the fat. "Surely all that is simple is sufficient for all that is good," said Madame de Stael. And when at a trattoria in Florence I asked the waiter if the cream was good, the man replied, 'yes, sir, stupendous': Si, signore, stupendo.
Id. (October 26, 1838):
Superlatives in conversation have the effect of diminutives or negatives. "An exquisite delightful angel of a child," probably means a child not engaging.

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