On Steroids


While steroid use among athletes is a common news item, the phrase on steroids has entered frequent circulation as well.  The phrase, on steroids, exaggerates the characteristics of a previously named object.  In a quick search, I found the phrase describing everything from  a city in China to the recent NASA Mission.

He or she who says on steroids hurls an insult with a certain appearance of judicious restraint. It is the superlative of all superlatives. It beats any word that ends in ‘est.’ Gather together uber, ginormous, and seismic.  You still won’t pack the punch of any named object  on steroids.

On steroids references only one kind of steroid, the anabolic steroid. These particular steroids represent only a small percentage of overall steroid use. The great majority of steroids are used not for muscle growth or strength but for medical benefit.   Cortisone injections, for example, reduce persistent inflammation in asthmatics.

When President Obama’s health care plan is described as being on steroids, the critic is referring to the qualities of anabolic steroids that enable unnatural growth. When President Obama’s West Wing is described as being on steroids, the critic’s intent is equally pejorative.

I am not foolish enough to advocate changing the phrase on steroids to on anabolic steroids. That would be like insisting we call all plants by their Latin names. What I do encourage, however is ceasing our frequent habit of maligning others before we are able to clearly articulate our own thoughts or beliefs first.  For example, instead of criticizing President Obama for the size of his health care plan, why not offer an alternative?

Saying on steroids, without more useful critique or detail,  is lazy. Debate in the public sphere is more than a dope test. It takes guts, thoughtful words, and hard work  to bring about change.

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One response to “On Steroids

  1. peter lynch

    language seems devalued in so many ways these days. a “tweet” on twitter consists of no more than 140 characters. this requirement forces even a linguistic purist to resort to misspellings at best, ungrammatical neologisms at worst, just as in texting. irony of ironies, all is irony when a medium that so challenges the richness of language gains–certainly without earning it–a moniker that suggests it will deliver what in fact it miserably fails to deliver: a text that everyone can agree deserves the name.

    maybe the aging new critics had a point when they complained that post-structuralism, by reducing first literature then any written artifact to the common category of “text,” risked debasing language itself. i hereby apologize for every accusation of stuffiness i made behind their backs in the 80s.

    and yet… while i do not particularly like twitter and thus use it rarely–the night neda agha-sultan died on the sidelines of a tehran protest providing the main exception of note–i do use facebook, willingly, often, and even gratefully. while i butt against its culture and word limits a bit, it offers freer range to the use of language as such rather than as abbreviated code, though one sees both among its users.

    whatever medium we choose to write within, however, we have to bear in mind two dangers: the flattening effect of categorical terms that reduce what they describe to the lowest common denominator–“text,” e.g., one to which post-structuralism accustomed me without complaint–and the employing of hyperbole to the point that phrases that ought to disturb us–“on steroids,” e.g., as you say–no longer do, suggesting more a heightened energy level than anything truly dangerous to our health. whatever happened to “book,” “message,” or “frenetic?”

    at the same time, we need not completely throw the hyperbolic baby out with the button-down bathwater, either. is it really asking too much that “off the wall” refer to both an impoverishment in logic as well as a high line drive off the green monster in fenway park?

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