Have strong words desensitised us to tragedy?

earthquake_richter_readingIn the wake of Tuesday’s earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, I’ve been thinking about the use of strong and emotional words to describe events. Recently there have been a lot of awful things happening around the world (floods, cyclones, protests, unnecessary bloodshed), and they can all claim valid use of words like destruction, devastation, and disaster. The problem is, I feel like these descriptions don’t have the same effect on me as they should. Of course, sitting at my computer at work, I don’t want to really empathise with survivors of disasters, for fear of crying in public, but I think that we have a lack of really extreme words these days.

Think about how often you hear words like terrifying, starving, incredible, unbelievable. Are they usually used in appropriate contexts? Can you really not believe how well your favourite band played their last concert? Is your friend literally starving because he hasn’t eaten all day? The word awesome has been so overused that it barely has any association with awe at all (I do use this word quite a lot, don’t get me wrong). We also have euphemisms like friendly fire which purposefully remove the connection to real (and sad) meanings.

A lot of people will say that that’s just how language is. Meanings and connotations change over time, and it’s not uncommon. I understand this, but as extreme words become more mainstream, how can we accurately describe something that is truly out of the ordinary? Do we need new words? Are there some that we can dredge up out of historical language to give them new purpose? I don’t want to sound like a robot, but I would like to be able to better feel the real impact of words.

If you would like to help out the people of Christchurch, there is a good summary of ways to donate money and time on the NZ Herald site.