COLM O'REGAN: History is found, not in the museums, but in the newspapers lining the shoe polish and brushes tin

I don’t know if I could handle ‘epic everything’. There are times you just want to sit down and put on your slippers writes Colm O’Regan.

A wise man should have once said: History is found, not in the museums, but in the newspapers lining the shoe polish and brushes tin. 

Underneath some dessicated Punch mid-brown I found a copy of the Cork Examiner from 1983. It had unfamiliar headlines about issues that thankfully have long since been sorted out like abortion and the Middle East and also headlines about unfamiliar concepts, like inflation.

Remember that? Remember when it was double figures? It was around this time that Taytos began their long inexorable rise in price. Now the headlines are about deflation.

While economic inflation has declined in newsworthiness, other types have become topical.

There is talk of grade inflation, a belief that students are getting better marks than their forbears did because the examinations are getting easier. This belief is partly rooted in fact — in 1964 English Paper 1 students were asked to write a novel whereas last year they were asked if they wanted anything from the shop — but rooted also in the prejudice that the incoming generation are not a patch on incumbents. It’s a feeling that goes back to days of Cain.

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Each incoming generation is responsible for another type of inflation: Adjective inflation.

For many years, we were a country not given to hyperbole. We hid our light under a bushel. Things were grand or not too bad. Now we are in the age of the ‘most’ and the ‘ever’ as we hype our boles off.

For example, I feel sorry for epic. It’s probably the most devalued of words. An epic used to be a long narrative poem. The first one is said to have been Assyrian ‘Gilgamesh’. Gilgamesh was a hero who defeated Humbaba the monster of the Cedar Forest and the Bull of heaven who had been sent by Ishtar the Babylonian Goddess of war. Homer’s Odysseus had to fight a cyclops before it was considered even part of an epic.

Yesterday I heard someone describe a sandwich as epic. There is an ad for HTC mobile phones now where young people – pah, curse their radiant skin – take irreverent photographs in an art gallery with the slogan EPIC EVERYTHING.

I don’t know if I could handle ‘epic everything’. There are times you just want to sit down and put on your slippers. Some of the blame for this has to go to the sports media. Their epic everything approach means a humdrum match between two mid-table non-entities is billed as a clash of the titans. And then the clash is paused for a while when one of the titans falls over his opponent’s ankle hair and needs life-saving treatment.

And if it’s not epic it’s legendary. Now a legend is a man who can down a rake of pints, a kebab and take a selfie with a traffic cone on his head. He used to have to run through a forest picking a thorn out of his foot.

The malleability in the meaning of words is not in itself a problem. English’s strength is its adaptability but adjectival inflation can’t go on forever. In economic inflation, when a currency is devalued, people flock to other commodities. A volcano can’t be epic if a mock-sepia filtered photo of a brunch is epic. It’ll have to be something else.

Since the humdrum has now been elevated to the legendary and the epic, the words which describe it must be relatively unused, so why not use them. Next time something epic happens, call it ordinary, run-of-the-mill, no big deal and we’ll know exactly how excited you are.

What do you think of that idea? I’d call it mediocre at best.

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