The literalist on Fathers Day

Fathers Day comes on the 19th. For the occasion, a Tom Toro cartoon that didn’t get into my earlier posting about him:

Well, there can be literally only one greatest dad in the world, but then not all language is literal — as in this case, where the sentiment on the mug is a piece of hyperbole, exaggeration for effect.

In the cartoon, there’s a domain of comparison stipulated: the whole world. But the domain can be left unspecified (Baby, you’re the best! and the like), giving hyperboles that shade into conventionalized constructions in which a superlative expresses not the high end in comparison, but simply a high degree: absolute superlatives (My darling, you are most beautiful! ‘… you are extraordinarily beautiful’,  That’s a most baffling puzzle ‘… a very baffling puzzle’ — note the huge stylistic / registral difference between this particular absolute superlative construction and the earlier examples).

[Digressive note: Absolute vs. true superlatives are quite prominent in some Romance languages, where they aren’t stylistically distinguished the way they are so often in English. So in Spanish:

true superlative: la casa más grande (de la ciudad) ‘the biggest house (in the city)’ (lit. ‘the bigger house (of the city)’)

absolute superlative: una casa grandísima ‘a very big house, a huge house’ (lit. ‘a most big house’) ≈ una casa muy grande

In English the absolute superlative is always periphrastic, while the true superlative (in tandem with the comparative) is inflectional or periphrastic depending on characteristics of the stem (a nicer person but a more pleasant person — the full set of facts is very complex). But in Spanish, as a rule the absolute superlative is inflectional, the true superlative periphrastic.]

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