Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Hotter Than the Doones' Bonfire in July

The calendar inspires the subject of this month's column, which I might characterize as "uses and abuses of the comparative". We use comparatives for two basic purposes. The default use is to compare things, with a view to assigning a relative value. The value-added use of comparatives is for emphasis, where no real comparison is intended but we wish to emphasize a quality, typically characterized with an adjective, that the adjective alone does not sufficiently convey. This may be because the adjective is common, and thus somewhat bleached: used so much that its bare use does not grab the attention of the listener or reader in a way that you want it to. You can say that something or someone is "hot," or you can say that they're "hotter than _________", usually in a figurative way. This form of colloquial emphasis adds color and interest to language, and should assure that our expressions form the impression that we intend.

Gigantic databases of language enable us to get a statistical picture of how speakers use such phrases, and the data yield some surprises. If you ask me to complete the phrase "hotter than ________", "July" is what comes to my mind first. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), that completing word doesn't appear anywhere near the top of the "hotter than" league tables. Perhaps it's a regionalism? It's certainly a Northern Hemisphere regionalism and that's where I live. It's also the title of a 1980 album by Stevie Wonder, and I expect that the phrase crept into my psyche from that source.

Where I don't live (yet) is Hades or hell, and those two words (which designate roughly the same place) are in fact the two most popular ways to complete the phrase "hotter than _____". As well designating a place that many imagine to be extremely hot (see the Christian Bible, passim), these popular phrases have the benefit of alliteration. "Hotter than hell" is by far the more frequent, but surely because than hell can also be used as a simple intensive, with no intended reference to the place. A person can be madder than hell; a task can be harder than hell; an unfortunate person or thing can be called uglier than hell. These are all tired clichés. Their use assures that their utterer will not be deemed clever, original, or inspired. So if you're going to summon a comparative for emphasis, don’t go to hell. We have all already been there and found it not that impressive.

A "hotter than" completer whose statistical frequency is greater than I would have guessed is "hotter than (a) jalapeño". Its popularity may be partly for alliterative quality but it's mostly a matter of marketing, in which a certain dish, sauce, chili, or other food item is characterized as being, e.g., "1200 times hotter than a jalapeño." I find this comparison particularly unuseful, because jalapeños are notoriously variable in their piquancy. I keep a supply of them in my fridge. Until I cut into one, I have no idea whether I'll need one, two or three to achieve a desired degree of heat in a dish. So my question would be, "hotter than which jalapeño?" if you're making a comparison that you wish to have genuine meaning for your readers, select an item that is well known for a fixed quality. It's also helpful to keep the comparison within the bounds of imagination, and I think "1200 times hotter" goes well beyond that.

At the other end of the temperature scale, a top completer of "colder than ________" is one I won't even write out because it is indelicate and deserves to be retired. It references the anatomy of a sorceress. The alternative formulation for comparison, "as cold as _________" shows the top completers "ice" and "an iceberg" (both clichés, in my view), and another that may still have some life in it: "as cold as the grave." Images that remind us vividly of our mortality have a startling quality not found in more ordinary vocabulary.

Examination of some other popular adjectives reveals that speakers and writers gravitate toward the tried and true with numbing frequency when they look for an emphatic comparative: "blacker than night/coal"; "whiter than milk/snow"; "older than the pyramids"; "smaller than a grain of rice/sand" (which is actually useful as a genuine comparative, but not as an intensifier). When you reach for one of these workhorses it's well to consider whether you mean to achieve anything by it, because you probably won't, other than to signal to the reader or listener your lack of creativity. And of course, creativity is not required at all times, in every utterance. On the other hand, the very concept of cliché exists because speakers choose the well-worn ruts too often.

When I was a teenager I read a book that is now all but forgotten: Lorna Doone, by R. D. Blackmore. I don't remember the particulars of the story now, only that it was a riveting adventure, and that I was continuously delighted by the vividness of the author's figurative language. The book is in the public domain with full text online, so I did a trawl, looking for some of the images that had so captured my imagination back in the day. They're all still there and I find them as captivating now as they were to my teenage mind. Here's a sampling:

The road from Bampton to Dulverton had not been very delicate, yet nothing to complain of much — no deeper, indeed, than the hocks of a horse, except in the rotten places.

John Fry jumped in a livelier manner than when he was doing day-work.

All was howling desolation, all the earth blocked up with snow, and all the air with barbs of ice as small as splintered needles, yet glittering, in and out, like stars, and gathering so upon a man (if long he stayed among them) that they began to weigh him down to sleepiness and frozen death.

Fifty years have passed me quicker than the taste of that gravy.

I went again to the place of business where they were grinding gold as freely as an apothecary at his pills.

"Nay, there is no time," she answered, glancing at a jewelled timepiece, scarcely larger than an oyster, which she drew from her waist-band.

They sang a song about it, every one shouting in the chorus louder than harvest thunderstorm.

The sweet remembrance glowed brighter than the sun through wheat.

My heart was quivering, and my cheeks as hot as the Doones' bonfire, with wondering both what Lorna would think of our farm-yard, and what my mother would think of her.

Blackmore's style and genre are probably a hard sell for today's teenager, whose appreciation of sustained narrative has been blunted by the easier gratifications of Snapchat, Kik, and Instagram. It's a pity, because the ability to express yourself effectively in language is largely developed by exposure to good models of it. I hope that teachers today will still try to turn their students toward these older models, which will always have much to teach us.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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