Ideas

The Word

Great: a massive, important, meaningless word

Shutterstock/Globe staff illustration

Shutterstock/Globe staff illustration

Are you having a great day?

The word great always does, at least in terms of volume. Newspaper and Internet headlines discuss great controversies, ways to be a great employee, all-time great baseball players, great-grandfathers, great escapes, the world’s great religions, the Great Barrier Reef, the Great Society, the Great Recession, great DVD Easter eggs — and, of course, Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again.”

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With that broad range of uses, great can feel a bit meaningless. A word that first applied to enormous things, then things with enormous importance, may have hit bottom when it was used in a famous slogan to describe Frosted Flakes. But though you may take greatness for granted, great is a word with a long, complex history that could never be summed up in a few words by a cartoon tiger or presidential candidate.

In fact, if you printed the Oxford English Dictionary’s entire entry on great, it would be over 100 pages. Great has West Germanic roots and has been around since the days of Old English. The overall journey of great is about bigness: physical, then metaphorical. This movement is common for adjectives. Anne Curzan, Arthur F. Thurnau professor of English at the University of Michigan and regular contributor to the Lingua Franca blog, said in an e-mail that huge is making a similar shift: “Now you will hear, in informal usage, huge used to refer to something very important or really good in terms of its overall value — for example, ‘That win was huge!’ ” Over the centuries, great set that standard for that kind of evolution.

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The oldest known uses of great are size-related — describing large particles, big body parts, and anything wide rather than narrow. That last sense influenced the pregnancy euphemism “great with child.” Many names for big things have absorbed great. The Great White North can be either the Arctic or Canada, which borders the Great Lakes. Jupiter has a mysterious Great Red Spot. People — along with bonobos, chimpanzees, and gorillas — are great apes, because of our size. Great Danes are one of the largest dog breeds. Other animals with great in their names include the great horned owl and great spotted kiwi, not to mention the great white shark. Similarly, the Great White Throne is a massive, godly chair mentioned in the Book of Revelation. Thrones, owls, lakes, and spots can all be great if they’re big.

Great evolved to describe anything with high quantity or volume, such as booming voices, lengthy events, severe storms, and powerful emotions. If your heart is great, you’re full of feeling. These days, any remarkable person or quality can be called great, as ever-popular Spider-Man learned in 1961 via the expression: “With great power comes great responsibility.” One of Stephen Colbert’s sharpest running jokes on his former show, “The Colbert Report,” involved the satirist asking journalists and politicians this loaded question: “George Walker Bush: great president or the greatest president?” In sports discussions, it’s common to argue about who’s the GOAT: greatest of all-time. While writing this article, I overheard someone describe a writer as “masterfully good but not great.” Great may be stretched thin, but we still pull it out when we want to say something is better than very good or all right.

Great is also a component of many exclamations, especially old-fashioned ones. The Dictionary of American Regional English records “Great day in the morning,” “Great guns,” and “Great snakes.” Another — “Great horned toads!” — was slightly altered by Looney Tunes’ Yosemite Sam as “Great horny toads!” Such uses are similar to great’s old and still common use as an intensifier, often a redundant one. As far back as the 1400, great was being used in phrases such as “great fat man,” “great large doll,” and “great big thing.” Less common these days are phrases like “huge great fishes” and “zonking great film star,” though many things are still “damn great.”

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Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, said in an e-mail that such uses have a tendency to sap a word’s semantic power: “When a given word’s meaning incorporates an extreme of some kind, such as terrific or awesome, it loses potency when used to modify another word. In the phrase ‘a terrific idea,’ for example, idea carries the most significant semantic burden, which leads to a weakening of the literal meaning of terrific.” Words such as great, fantastic, amazing, and awful have undergone what Sokolowski called ”semantic bleaching.” Sometimes such bleaching bothers people, like when you hear complaints that awesome should still mean “full of awe,” but a lot of semantic bleaching happens without anyone noticing or caring.

Great is so bleached that it often conveys nothing at all. Dennis Baron, professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and creator of the Web of Language site, said that the sense of great as magnificent or impressive isn’t totally lost, but the word is often a “meaningless placeholder.” This is partially because “common words mean very little.” Rare words end up carrying most meaning, while a word like great is meant to convey, at most, vague enthusiasm.

But meaninglessness isn’t uselessness. The lack of meaning in great explains its long-term appeal. Greatness is nebulously positive, which is perfect for politics, where more detailed language could turn off voters. The empty enthusiasm of great makes it the perfect marketing tool. “Make America Great Again” really carries the message “Make America ______ Again.” We all get to fill in the blanks.

Mark Peters is the author of the “Bull[expletive]: A Lexicon” from Three Rivers Press. Follow him on Twitter @wordlust.
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