One of the most overused terms in modern speech is the word “absolutely.” As in, “Do you want some gravy with those potatoes?” “Absolutely!” Or, “Would you agree that solution ‘X’ is the best solution to problem ‘Y’?” “Absolutely!” What to call this … an expression? A semantic substitution for “yes?” A logism? A hyperbole? A grandiloquence? A periphrasis? Why this obsession with saying “absolutely” or its strange step-sister, “exactly”?
It is a strange paradox that in an age of relativism, an age that emphasizes personal opinion and subjective feelings over objective truth, so many people substitute for “yes” words like “absolutely,” “exactly,” “precisely,” “positively,” and so forth.
Perhaps we subconsciously seek certainty in an age of uncertainty. Or perhaps, in an age of hypersensitivity, we seek to overemphasize to people that we are “100% on board” with what they have said.
And now you may ask, “Why do you keep saying ‘perhaps’? Are you indicating a lack of certainty in your conclusion?” Absolutely! I have no idea why people use this word so much today. And NOW you ask, “Why do you say you have NO idea? Is it not really the case that you have some idea and that your saying ‘NO idea’ is reflective of the tendency for people to use hyperbole (exaggeration) for emphasis?” Yes! Absolutely! Exactly! So perhaps people are using “absolutely” merely as hyperbole.
Well, as you can see, we humans use a lot of rather excessive and categorical ways of speaking, even while at the same time using qualifiers such as “perhaps” and “sort of.” We are very strange. Which is really (or should I say perhaps) another way of saying that we are somewhat strange.
But, back to “absolutely.” Avoid saying this word for three reasons:
1. It’s getting annoying. I think it has surpassed “you know” and “like” on the annoyance meter. I want you to know that I never use any of these terms. 😉
2. You don’t really mean it. It’s more likely that you just mean “yes” or “I’m generally on board with what you said.” So say what you mean and own it.
3. Even for those of us who do not come from an “everything’s relative” mindset, affirming things “absolutely” is not usually recommended. There’s an old saying (playful in its own way), “Seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish.” In other words, most statements, positions, views, rules, etc. admit of exceptions, need context, and/or require distinctions. Few things are “absolutely” the case. The road sign at the upper right is not absolutely true. If it were, there would be nothing to indicate, nothing to point at; there would be no next 22 miles at all.
Even commandments like “Thou shalt not kill” require some distinctions and context. Thus, in the commandment, “kill” is used more in the sense of “murder.” For in rare cases, one is able to kill as a last recourse if it is necessary to save one’s own life (self-defense) or the lives of others. Further, “killing” is often distinguished to mean premeditated, intentional killing (first degree murder) and other lesser degrees such as accidental killing due to irresponsibility (manslaughter), etc. So even if someone asks, “So would you agree with me that killing people is wrong?” it should not usually produce the answer, “Absolutely!” or “Exactly!”
Now, there ARE absolute moral norms such as “Never kill the innocent” and “Never blaspheme God.” But most things admit of exceptions (even if rare) and are not in fact “absolute.”
Does my correction seem dangerous to you? Of course it does. But we who live in an age of excessive relativism ought not overreact by insisting that more things are absolute than actually are, or that the only certainty is absolute certainty. Most rules, norms, and teachings do have exceptions and most of what we know has varying degrees of certainty. Most of us who have faith can be most certain about what God has definitively revealed. But even here, simply pulling a quote from the Bible or the Catechism is not enough. We need to understand a given truth or line from the Bible in the context of the whole of revealed truth, which sometimes qualifies, balances, or distinguishes it.
Many today who oppose the moral teachings of Scripture and the Church do this by reducing everything about the Lord to a “God is love” argument, as if the fact that He loves us means He would never say anything that might upset us. And thus one concept from Scripture is absolutized and read without understanding or referring to anything else. Yes, God is love, but He also loves us too much to lie to us. God loves us enough to tell us the truth and, if necessary, to hit us over the head with it.
The bottom line is, avoid saying “absolutely,” though I don’t mean this absolutely. Jesus gets the last word: Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one (Matt 5:37).
Can I get an “Absolutely!”? err … I mean, can I get an “Amen!”?