Daily Rhetricks

Daily Rhetrick: October 10, 2018

October 10, 2018


Some language analysts conclude that in ordinary talk the word real is “nearly meaningless.” It’s easy to agree when you hear people say, “It’s a real situation we have here” or “She’s a real winner.” What is lost if the word is removed?

In other contexts, however, real points the way to deep-seated cultural attitudes, some not pleasant to think about. A week ago my wife and I were having coffee with three women, all Colorado ranchers. One mentioned the discovery of a U-haul trailer full of stolen .22 and .380 handguns in a Walgreen parking lot in Midlothian, Illinois. She had lived in Midlothian. She said, “What were those guys doing with those piss-ant guns? If I had been there, I would have shown them what a real gun looks like.” She meant a Smith & Wesson 460 Magnum, or a .700 Nitro Express.

In this context, real means “better,” but better in a particular way: bigger, more powerful, more advanced technologically. The meaning is the same in the 2018 GMC Sierra commercial: “Imagine the feeling you’ll get from your first real truck.” And much the same meaning when people talk about a real computer, a real war, a real country (as opposed to a “shithole country”). So emerges our culture’s love with bigness, technology, and show, some of it needlessly destructive.

Linguists call words such as real “expletives” (from the Latin explere, to fill). The words are empty containers waiting to be loaded up, often with the emotional attitude of the speaker. “I can’t open this wretched thing,” wails Lady Trentham of her thermos in Gosford Park. But be alert to fillings beyond just the emotional. Shouldn’t Lady Trentham have owned a real thermos?

4 thoughts on “Daily Rhetrick: October 10, 2018”

  1. Yes, here in the USA “bigger is better”! And your anecdote about those gun-totin’ wimmin, Rich, is a perfect example.

    Allow me as a linguist, though, to make one technical correction. The adjective real, as used in your examples, is not an “expletive” but an intensifier.

    1. Can’t it be both? In the sentence, “I do want to go,” the “do” is an expletive, technically. It does not add any basic meaning. But it also functions as an intensifier. I hate to resort to Wikipedia, but the entry on intensifier states outright, “Intensifiers are grammatical expletives” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intensifier). The exact term may be ” expletive attributive.” “An expletive attributive is an adjective or adverb (or adjectival or adverbial phrase) that does not contribute to the propositional meaning of a sentence, but is used to intensify its emotional force” (http://www.artandpopularculture.com/Expletive_attributive).

  2. Rich, that long unattributed opening paragraph in Wikipedia strikes me as nonsensical and I doubt very much that either Huddleston or Pullum had anything to do with it (I’m quite familiar with their respective works and writing styles). If you look up “expletives” on Wikipedia you’ll get a much clearer notion of what they are. Expletives and intensifiers are two different things.
    Your example “I do want to go” would mean something quite different In Middle English than it does in Modern English. Back in Chaucer’s time, the auxiliary verb do was routinely used without any special illocutionary force. Today it would be interpreted as either denying its contrary (“I don’t want to go”) or as a positive intensifier. In any case it’s not an “expletive.”

    Here’s another way to see the difference. When that Colorado woman talked about “what a real gun looks like,” the word “real” had real meaning for her. In fact, it’s the most important, most meaningful word in that entire sentence. Thus it’s the very opposite of what makes an expletive an expletive — its meaninglessness.

  3. Rich, by sheer coincidence, the day before your post on this topic I got into a flaming back-and-forth on Facebook when I made this comment: “Dr. Ford showed herself to be a real woman. Collins, on the other hand, is now exposed as a phony.”
    Another commenter jumped on this, saying “All women are real women, and Susan Collins is no exception. Who are you to say otherwise?”
    Of course I responded by noting the difference between literal and figurative uses of language but he (and an accomplice) would have none of it. It went back and forth for at least an hour, until I decided I had better things to do with my time.

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