Not a month goes by that someone doesn’t write to complain about the ubiquity of the word absolutely. The following objections to this word are typical:
Please answer a question without starting with the word “absolutely.” It’s driving me mad, please please stop.
What’s wrong with responding, “without a doubt,” “you bet,” “of course,” “for sure,” or simply “yes”?
It [strikes] me as ironic that perfectly good English words and phrases like “that’s correct” and “yes” [are] being usurped by the invasive “absolutely.”
Complaints about absolutely have been circling the Web for at least 18 years. It was on the Lake Superior State University’s list of banished words in 1996. It continues to be the object of wrath on many blog sites, and it made another appearance on the LSSU list in 2014.
Perceptions that absolutely as a synonym for “yes” is a recent tic have led people to speculate as to what or whom to blame for introducing it into popular speech. In 1996, a critic put the blame on the movie Rocky (1976). However, the citations in the OED indicate that absolutely has been used as an affirmation since 1825:
“Is it permitted me to ask your majesty whether the opinion of the queen is conformable to that of your majesty?” “Yes, absolutely; she will tell you so herself.” (1825)
“Is such really the state of matters between you and Rivers?” “Absolutely, sir!” (1847)
“Do you mean to say that if he was all right and proper otherwise you’d be indifferent about the earl part of the business?” “Absolutely.” (1892)
Absolutely is not confined to use as a word for “yes.” It is also used to modify words in every type of context, from baby clothes to wartime atrocities:
Fifteen Absolutely Darling Onesies
Pablo Hernandez scored an absolutely outrageous no-look back-heel against Atletico Madrid this evening.
The Absolutely Most Delicious Wrap and Sandwich Recipes Cookbook
Killing reporters during battles in southeastern Ukraine is absolutely unacceptable.
In each of these examples, absolutely is being used as an empty intensifier, the way awesome is so often used.
Sometimes absolutely is used functionally, as in this household tip:
Get all the clothes that you want to store absolutely clean and dry.
Here the meaning is, “to the fullest extent.”
In a 2009 article on the CNN website, Rex Bossert, an assistant dean at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, is quoted as blaming O.J. Simpson for introducing absolutely as the ultimate modifier. Bossert points out that when Simpson was arraigned in 1994 and was asked how he pled, he didn’t say simply “not guilty”; he said, “Absolutely, 100 percent not guilty.”
Why does a word that ranks so high among verba non grata continue to remain so popular?
The CNN article also quotes an account executive who has embraced absolutely as her word for “yes” because it sounds reassuring:
Absolutely sounds confident and sure. In times of ambivalence, people could use a bit of semantic surety. When you use it, you just feel more confident.
Unfortunately, many speakers perceive absolutely as the contrary of reassuring. In the view of one college student at the University of Oregon,
[Absolutely] now means “a lot of bull.” It’s like “whatever,” or “sure.” It grates on me when a professor or another student says “absolutely” because saying it means they’re a phony (2010).
Bottom line: Absolutely as both a synonym for “yes” and a meaningless intensifier will probably be with us for some time. Professionals need to be aware that promiscuous use of the word is annoying, and that many speakers view such use as evidence of insincerity, untrustworthiness, and mental vacuity.
vacuity (noun): complete absence of ideas; vacancy of mind or thought.
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