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.