Incredible Incredulity

I have complained in this blog about my colleagues’ use of “incredible” as a superlative. My pedantry has not impressed my colleagues. Incredibly, I persist.

My first objection to common use of “incredible” among educated folk is that they emulate colloquial usage in which opposites — “bad” when one means “good” — or obliques — “wicked” for “very” in the Boston area or films about improper Bostonians — become so familiar that terms or phrases lose their former irony. Colleagues have said that they found a job talk “incredible.” At the least I should expect that a PhD could select a less hackneyed, more revealing expression if her or his purpose were to commit to any proposition at all.

No one seems to share my second disappointment with “incredible” either. Wielded in a cunning way, “incredible” permits deceivers to admit literally and explicitly that their expressions are not to be believed but to do so in a manner in which most listeners or readers will infer the opposite or oblique meaning. “I think that this proposal is incredible” may please or placate an audience without necessarily committing the thinker to other than what “the thinker” proclaimed.  Opposition research will encounter proclamations so Janus-faced that the candidate can benefit from a flip-flop that appears to be one thing AND another as tactical conditions warrant.

Still, I admit that the general emptiness of rhetoric and other expression probably protects most of us from such faulty locutions. When a colleague says “I thought his presentation was incredible,” the colleague need mean little more than that the colleague will be making a case for an applicant that the colleague favors on whatever grounds. Who would take an academic, after all, to mean what he or she says?

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