Seán Moncrieff: Stop saying Perfect. Nothing is Perfect

Why do we say things are ‘perfect’ when they clearly aren’t?

‘My kids sit around looking at Love Island and regularly declare that various contestants are either “iconic” or “legendary”, when clearly, they are neither.’

‘My kids sit around looking at Love Island and regularly declare that various contestants are either “iconic” or “legendary”, when clearly, they are neither.’

 

You’re checking into a hotel and being peppered with questions. Have you stayed with us before? Do you know when we serve breakfast? Do you want help with your bags? Do you want to provide a credit card in case you go berserk with the mini-bar?

It doesn’t really matter what you answer. Yes. No. Mind your own vegetables. The receptionist will always, always use the same word.

Perfect.

It’s usually delivered in a slightly-hushed, slightly-conspiratorial way; as if they’ve spent all that day dealing with idiots who don’t know how hotels work, who insist that a lackey carry their shoulder bag up to room 302. But not you. You’re going to carry your own shoulder bag. You’re perfect.

“Perfect” is one of those service-industry terms that’s more of a mood-setter than a conveyor of meaning. They could say broccoli or piston in the same tone for the same effect. And probably no one would notice.

There are countless other examples of these verbal fashions, amplified by the internet, where words get over-used to the point of meaninglessness or start to mean something completely different. My kids sit around looking at Love Island and regularly declare that various contestants are either “iconic” or “legendary”, when clearly, they are neither. Curiously, the kids are uninterested in my observation that these people exist in the real world, and therefore are not legendary, and that after the series is over, they will almost certainly return to humdrum life. Nice tats don’t make you an icon.

Dose of chlamydia

But really, it’s grand. If anything, it demonstrates how fluid and dynamic language can be. My problem with “perfect” is that, like a possible dose of chlamydia on Love Island, it can spread and in certain cases might do damage.

Not too long ago I had to have a medical check-up for an insurance thingy. But I hadn’t organised the appointment. The insurance man – let’s call him Bob – emailed me to ask had I had the check-up. I said no. Bob replied: perfect.

After a while, this worried me. Given I knew I had to get the check-up, but had forgotten (no, really). So perhaps Bob was being sardonic: oh, perfect.

I made an appointment. The closest date I could get was for two weeks hence. I emailed Bob again, informing him of this. His reply: perfect.

But was it perfect? How could this arrangement be perfect when the previous non-arrangement was also perfect? Perhaps he was still being sardonic. So, I emailed a third time, asking if the fortnight time lag might delay the insurance thingy. I got no reply.

Perhaps Bob didn’t know any other words. Perhaps Bob had a philosophical opposition to ever saying anything negative. Because as it turned out, it would have caused a delay. It wasn’t perfect. It was, in fact, the opposite of perfect.

I managed to get a check-up elsewhere and that solved the problem: but it was a problem I didn’t know I had for a couple of days because of the incorrect use of a word.

I didn’t email him back to point this out. Perhaps I should have. But I could imagine Bob rolling his eyes at this geezer with his old-fashioned views about the function of words. People know what Bob means. He probably even says you know what I mean? all the time, just to be sure.

But do they? We are all locked within ourselves, and one of the few ways to reach beyond that boundary is through words. To understand the essentiality of Bob-ness, Bob needs words to tell us.

The irony is that while “perfect” may have become meaningless, in a sense it always has been. It’s handy as a piece of hyperbole to indicate good or great, but perfection is only an idea. It doesn’t exist in the real world, where everything is imperfect. Including language. Especially language.

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