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Absolutely the All-Purpose Emphatic

In contemporary spoken Englishes all over the world––i. e., not just the British and American variety of English, but the Canadian, Australian, Pakistani, South African, etc.––the word absolutely, typically prefixed, occurs as an emphatic or intensifier of the word it precedes, so that “He’ll absolutely do it” is uttered when the speaker wishes to communicate a high level of assertory force. This absolutely is also often heard as a retort instead of the simple affirmative “Yes,” even when the most mundane request (e.g., “Please pull up Claudia’s voucher” directed at the staff of a gym where a client is requesting that his trainer Claudia’s voucher be presented for his signature so that she can be paid) should have elicited only something as denatured as “Yes, certainly,” “Yes, of course,” etc. In fact, for younger adult speakers one can even go so far as to say that “Yes” has practically been replaced by “Absolutely” as the automatic affirmative response when nothing more emphatic is meant than simple acquiescence.

The kind of aggrandizement of the force of an utterance conveyed by absolutely used to connote intensification can be seen as a proxy for intonational emphasis, although the word clearly does not exclude being uttered with emphatic intonation when the situation calls for extra assertory force.

But the evaluation of the process described extends beyond the matter of the emasculation of this particular word, beyond its contemporary slippage into the inventory of simple affirmatives lacking emphatic force. It is to be seen as yet another instance of a type of linguistic pathology––namely grammatical hypertrophy––which is a failure of thought. This type of failure is normally coextensive with the pleonasms, redundancies, and tautologies of all sorts that are rapidly pervading the language without being recognized as such by their users––in other words, varieties of overdetermination by repetition. However, absolutely uttered without emphatic intonation as a lexical item of maximal assertory force utilized to signify mere agreement should also be understood as an overdetermination. Here this category is exemplified by a word voided of its lexical meaning and relegated to a mere token of discourse accompanying a recurring speech act.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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