Tuesday, 28 April 2009

On giving 100 percent

This week my phone has been overworked because apparently Alan Sugar fires people who say they are giving a job '110 percent'. He's evidently got the impression that the English language only allows people to get up to 100, in terms of percentages.

I was surprised to hear that, coming from a businessman, who is presumably used to seeing shares going up by 200 percent, and such like. There's nothing mathematically wrong with going over 100. But of course what he's getting at (and failing to recognize) is a recent change in usage. It's a kind of semantic inflation, which (it occurs to me) is a bit like the discussion on this blog a while back about '1000 apologies'.

In its figurative usage, 100 percent always meant a notional maximum: one gave up to 100 percent of one's effort, and could give no more. Now the meaning has altered: 100 percent has come to mean 'the norm, the usual level'. 110 percent thus means, '10 percent more than what ordinary people do, or what has been someone's norm hitherto'. 200 percent means 'twice as much'. And so on. I'd expect Alan Sugar to be pleased that someone has expressed the desire to make that extra effort, not to dismiss it.

I've heard 500 percent, 1000 percent, and other values in recent times. Clearly the numbers are not important: it's the rhetoric that counts. And people seem to need the rhetoric. If a football team makes a greater effort than normal, managers routinely compliment them by raising the percentages. Of course, if such phrases become frequent, they turn into cliches, and lose their meaning. But that is precisely what Alan Sugar should have probed. Was his candidate thinking of what he was saying? If I'd been Sugar, I wouldn't have automatically dismissed the 10 percent as a 'waste', I'd have asked the candidate how exactly he would have improved on his previous performance by that amount, and judged him on the quality of his response.

9 comments:

vp said...

In the 1972 US presidential election, Democratic candidate George McGovern, in response to reports that his running mate Thomas Eagleton had undergone electric shock therapy for depression, said that he backed Eagleton "1000 percent". Less than a week later, he had removed him.

link

DC said...

And that was over 30 years ago. I've no idea when the usage first came in. The OED hasn't yet got a trace on it.

Sally said...

Are you a fan of "The Apprentice"?

Ric Morris said...

The other side of the coin, of course, is the powerful understatement:'not bad...not bad at all...', or 'Houston, we have a problem.'

DC said...

Not really. I've watched it a couple of times, to see the sort of thing it is. Professional duty, I suppose. Otherwise a raft of cultural linguistic allusions would pass me by.

vilges suola said...

In education now it seems that 'satisfactory' no longer means 'satisfactory', but actually means 'not quite good enough'. In other words, 'satisfactory' now means 'not satisfactory'.

maxqnz said...

@ "In other words, 'satisfactory' now means 'not satisfactory'."

This has been true for several decades now. Even in the 1970s the "damning with faint praise" nature of "satisfactory" on a school report was evident, and since then the use of "satisfactory" to mean "unsatisfactory" has spread outside the education system. At least, that's how it seems here in Aotearoa.

deano30 said...

I had this undigested understanding that giving 100 percent could not be surpassed because percent meant per hundred - thus giving 100 per 100 meant giving the complete whole deal. There is thus no more to give.


People who inflate the language often dilute the beer and are thus not trusted - at least that is the case in Yorkshire.

Juno said...

Interesting conversation.

We are currently battling with management who want to implement a new pay structure which, after three years in post, will no longer reward you by more than a 'cost of living' increase if you are merely doing your job 'fully and well'.