Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 18 January 2003

A Lexicographer writes

Text settings

The vogue word of the year so far is extreme. It has been around for centuries, deriving from the Latin superlative extremus, 'outermost'. But for the English word recently a flavour of danger and convention-breaking has developed. 'Extreme' sports are those like mountaineering or paragliding that offer physical risks. Now extreme is taking on a life of its own. Soon one will not ask 'Extremely what?' People will exclaim 'Extreme!' as they do 'Gross!'

Indeed, extreme as a noun has already acquired this connotation: 'It does give lovers of arthouse extreme something to get their teeth into,' said the Scottish Daily Record of some dreadful American movie.

Telly enjoys extreme sport and there is money to be made. The 'Playboy X-treme Team', made up of Playboy 'Playmates', entered a race in Borneo that entailed kayaking, mountain-biking and trekking through jungle. Right-Guard deodorant is, I saw in Boots, available in a series labelled 'X-treme Sport'. The Independent on Sunday tells readers that 'extreme-sport medical insurance isn't cheap, but it will feel like a wise investment when you're lying at the top of a mountain with a broken leg'.

The Olympics of extreme sport, the X Games, were apparently started in 1995 by an American television station. When the US Marines were asked why they had begun trying to recruit at the games, a spokesman said, 'The athletes competing here are to the sports world what the Marine Corps is to the US military - extreme!'

A winter version is held in Aspen, Colorado. As Giles Smith noted in the Daily Telegraph, Channel 4 is the chief media patron of those whose 'definition of extreme sport is someone you've never heard of losing their balance in some snow'. The next step was the parodic event of extreme ironing, featuring team members with names like Steam, Starch and Basket. I can see the idea is amusing, but the television footage turned out not to be.

David Rennie, in the same paper, drew attention to the American craze for violent 'backyard wrestling'. Inspired by the inane Jackass television programme, teenagers called Zero or Havoc attack one another with metal chairs, planks and lighter fuel. If you ask me, they fail to distinguish between fantasy and reality. But, Mr Rennie rightly points out, it is a reflection of 'the popularity of extreme behaviour'.

Even poor Diana Ross, arrested for 'Driving Under the Influence' (DUI), on being found to have a blood/alcohol content of 0.2 per cent incurred the additional charge of 'extreme DUI'.