Astronomically Strange Intensifiers:

Recently, I noticed some strange uses of adverbs. Some examples:

  • "in an active shooter situation, things can get astronomically bad."
  • "I miss you unconditionally."

On the surface, these don't make a lot of sense. Astronomically generally refers to scale: astronomically large distances, for instance, are distances that are so large as to be on the same scale as the distances between celestial bodies. In general, astronomical refers to things that are large enough as to be of that scale (say, 93 million miles). However, the speaker who uttered the above had made the jump from very large to just very

Similarly, if you love someone without any conditions or expectations, it's reasonable to say "I love you unconditionally." If you don't think too hard about what this means, it could be reasonable to interpret it as meaning "I love you a lot." Of course, literally, it has some peculiar entailments, like "I miss you even when you are present, and there is no situation in which I won't miss you." 

What's happening here is the same process of semantic bleaching that gave rise to literally as an intensifier (no, it does not mean figuratively. "I'm literally starving" means the same as "I'm really starving" and does not mean the same as "I'm figuratively starving."). For that matter, it's how we got words like truly, as in "I'm truly hungry." 

All I'll say about this is that I'm literally astronomically impressed with people's ability to innovate by analogy.



©Taylor Jones 2015

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