Friday, Sept. 1, 2006 | “San Diego, America’s Finest City” is a superlative that has come a cropper following disclosures of troubled finances and other ills. It was quietly dropped from the city’s website last August. Lately San Diego has been called many things, including “Enron-by-the Sea by The New York Times and “Paradise Insolvent” by Governing Magazine.

If San Diego had been performing brilliantly in every important respect, that superlative might not have been sufficient to acknowledge what San Diego is beyond doubt: A beautiful, superbly located and coruscating agglomeration. In other words, one has to be very careful. A superlative is a dangerous expression, because once used, it can’t be exceeded. It is the end of the line: What do you do for an encore? Advertisers are overly fond of superlatives. They use them so much that superlatives no longer mean much and few people really believe them anyway.

Lesser adjectives such as better, higher, cheaper, lighter, safer are still used without subject, but these have been even more devalued than superlatives, and they have remained meaningless. Of course, there are other words on the dictionary shelf that are used to go over superlatives, such as super and extra, but these have shot their wads a long time ago. The truth is we are running out not only of meaningful (sic) adjectives, but of nouns as well. I happen to have a couple of contemporary examples here for your delectation to share, because they make me see red and I suspect that they may be doing the same to at least some of you.

One of them is “expert.” Dictionaries define that noun as someone with special knowledge, skill and/or experience in the mastery of a specific subject. In other words, experts are supposed to be able to handle nearly everything there is to know at the time about a particular subject. But when you watch television or listen to radio, there is a plethora of persons introduced as experts on a wide variety of subjects, but rarely with any clue about how those “expertises,” if any, were acquired.

It suffices for news anchors to confer the title of expert on anybody willing to be heard and seen, who can answer questions with authority. My suffering wife will tell you that she has to contend with my loudly expressed frustration at the utter nonsense too often spouted by “experts” in chemistry, microbiology, nuclear science and the like in which I have some acquaintance. OK you say, if “expert” is rarely justified, what designation can be used?

The applicable word is “specialist.” A specialist, as the word suggests, specializes in a subject. He or she may not know much if anything about the subject, but at least that person specializes in it.

The word “hero” is equally at risk, and here I had better tread lightly. In the Afghanistan and Iraq raging conflicts, the military and news reporters under fire are at risk of disabling harm and death, they can be qualified as “heroes.” But if everybody in these dangerous parts are granted that worthy designation, it is a different matter altogether. If everybody is called a hero, nobody is a hero. The word hero has had an honorable and hallowed history.

During the Civil War and in World War II, the word was used very sparingly and that gave it a powerful patina of value to the recipient. This is no longer the case, and that is a real shame because it has become difficult if not impossible tell the real heroes from others that do not truly deserve this tribute,

We are living through a period, during which specious superlatives are bandied about. It has become very difficult to tell who are the trustworthy, competent, capable and courageous individuals among us. For example, the Presidential Medal of Freedom created by President Harry Truman and reestablished later by President John Kennedy, honors those Americans who have rendered outstanding national service. It was awarded to such eminent persons as Rosa Parks, Robert Dole, Elliott Richardson, President Gerald Ford, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Dr. D.A. Henderson (who led the eradication of smallpox from the world). On December 14, 2004, in a widely acclaimed White House ceremony, President George W. Bush awarded the Presidential Medial of Freedom to (former) General Tommy Franks, (former) CIA Director George Tenet and (former) Ambassador L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer III.

Some people believe that these individuals should have been fired rather than decorated. Misplaced superlatives again? You draw you own conclusion.

Elie Shneour is research director & president of Biosystems Research Institute. He is also involved in San Diego regional and in national issues involving science in domestic and foreign affairs. Agree? Disagree? Send a letter to the editor.

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