Stating the Obvious

Guest Blog by Jennifer McKitrick

Watch news, a talk show, or the like, and notice how many times you hear the word “obviously.”

horse or frog? About the flooding in the Northwest the other day:

“Residents are obviously trapped and obviously in need of supplies.”

Umm … what they were showing was houses with water up to the 2nd floor. Maybe they had been evacuated. Maybe someone had just come by and delivered a boat load of supplies. I don’t know. Neither of those things were obvious.

About “baby Grace,” the dead toddler found off the coast of Texas (before she was identified):

“Her family is obviously very worried about her and loves her very much.”

No one knew who her family was, or if indeed they had been the ones that killed her. In fact, her mother and stepfather are now in custody.

I think the use of “obviously” often corresponds closely with what is usually meant by “presumably.”

If you just take “obviously” out of the sentences in which it appears, oddly what is left is something that the speaker is in no position to assert. But somehow “obviously” qualifies what they say, as if they are taking it as obvious. Since the “news” is so often involved with guesswork and presumption nowadays, it’s no wonder that they would often employ words which hedge what they say. What is a wonder is the irony of using “obviously” to characterize something that is not only not obvious, but not even known to be true.

Either that, or it’s just a verbal tick, like “err” and “ummm.”

Jennifer McKitrick is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, and Vice-President of the Molinari Institute and Molinari Society.


2 Responses to Stating the Obvious

  1. Micha Ghertner December 15, 2007 at 7:07 am #

    Another word with similar ironic usage (ironic in that it is used to mean the exact opposite of the obvious, literal definition) is “literally.” Some examples… from this very blog!

    Wallace concludes that Rand’s philosophy, while intended as a celebration of rationality, ends up undermining it – it is “literally a house built on sand.” (I presume the word “literally” is being used non-literally here.)
    Satanic Epistemology?

    Did Olbermann just say that the idea of Harry Potter “literally popped into her [J. K. Rowling’s] head”? Sounds painful. Or maybe he was using the term “literally” non-literally.
    Harry Popper

  2. Administrator December 15, 2007 at 11:05 am #

    One of my college roommates used to mock/combat the misuse of “literally” by saying things like “there were hundreds! literally dozens! of them….”

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