USS Clueless -- The destruction of a perfectly good word

  USS Clueless

             Voyages of a restless mind

no graphics

Log archives
Best log entries
Other articles

Site Search

The destruction of a perfectly good word

I hate advertising copywriters. (I wonder if anyone loves them, besides perhaps their mothers.) They're all obnoxious, but in particular recently the ones writing the advertisements for computer games have gotten under my skin, because they've destroyed a perfectly good word by misusing it over and over.

The word is "ultimate". And it seems as if these days every game claims to be "the ultimate game of" whatever genre it's part of -- at least until the next one comes along. And that's simply wrong. But it's become a mandatory word in the ads these days.

The problem is that as they're using it, it seems to mean "This is the best which is available right now, although all of us know that next year or the year after something better will come along."

Actually what it means is "please please please please buy our game please please please please".

But this word has an actual, useful meaning; it means "the end of a series, an accomplishment so great that it will never be surpassed for all time, and perhaps so great that no-one will ever try."

Beethoven wrote the ultimate string quartets. Others have written string quartets since then, many times, but they've never tried to explore the musical space that Beethoven bestrides with that work, because it simply cannot be surpassed and everyone knows it.

"The Mona Lisa" is the ultimate portrait. Many portraits have been painted since then -- thousands, in fact -- and yet, when you think of "portrait" the odds are that the Mona Lisa is the one you think of.

Collectively, three things make up "the ultimate tomb". One is the great pyramid of Giza. The second is the Taj Mahal. The third is the burial mound of Qin Shihuangdi. Each is radically different, and each in its way is the ultimate expression of its type. No-one will ever build a greater pyramid; no-one will even try. I'm not sure just how you'd classify the Taj Mahal (perhaps as a palace), but it is certain that no-one will ever try to build anything like it only better. And the burial mound of Qin Shihuangdi promises miracles undreamed; what they have already excavated is beyond belief: a terra-cotta army of hundreds of soldiers complete with weapons, chariots, horses, officers... The stories of the main tomb make it a place of miracles: rivers filled with mercury (so they'd never go dry) with gems mounted in the ceiling to simulate stars; a reproduction of the final darkness into which Qin went. Now it is a fact that the soil around the main tomb has a very high amount of mercury in it, which is unnatural for that area. So the stories may well be true. The Chinese are taking their time about excavating the main tomb; they want to do it right since they get only one chance and don't want to screw it up (and rightly so; there's no hurry). So we don't yet know what will be found. But from what has already been found, it's certain to be spectacular.

In an era where we are used to technologies becoming obsolete in five years, it may surprise some people to realize that there are ultimate technologies.

One in particular is concrete. It was invented by the Romans and is responsible for much of the spectactular civil engineering and great buildings they created, which far surpassed those of the Greeks and Egyptians, who had no such material, and had to rely solely upon stone with gravity to hold their buildings together. Concrete made possible what is still one of the largest unsupported domes in existence, built more than fifteen hundred years ago. The Romans used it for roads, they used it for buildings, they used it for bridges, they used it for aquaducts, they used it for nearly everything.

Concrete combines ready access to its components which are common all over the world, high safety, extreme ease of use, very low cost, great versatility, extreme durability, high strength and it's not even all that ugly. (Some rather beautiful structures have been built out of unpainted concrete.) While we don't use it for every single thing we build, we use it in immense quantities every year, for roads and bridges and buildings and sidewalks and hydroelectric dams and swimming pools and an unimaginable number of other things. And the material we mix would be perfectly familiar to a Roman Civil Engineer, because it has changed hardly at all in 2000 years. We still use essentially the same mix they did: ground and baked lime, sand, gravel or crushed rock, and water, all mixed in the proper proportions, poured into a form, and then permitted to cure. (Of course, a Roman Civil Engineer wouldn't recognize a cement truck, but that's a minor detail.)

In 2000 years, the only significant improvement we've made over the original technology is steel-reinforcing.

But walk down any street in any city and you'll see concrete everywhere.

I venture to say that 2000 years from now they'll still be using it in essentially the same form.

THAT is what "ultimate" means, and the advertising copy writers have devalued the word by continual misuse. It doesn't mean "pretty good but we all know it will be surpassed next year" which is how they are using it.

This page has been viewed 2269 times since 20010726.

Captured by MemoWeb from on 9/16/2004