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tmd54301I’m surely not the first to point this phenomenon out, but I find self-canceling verbal intensifiers interesting, and I’m running into a lot of them lately.

(Fortunately, the resulting stain is easily removed with lemon juice and 7-Up.)

First was a conversation with a friend about three weeks ago. “We’re all here for a purpose, I truly believe that,” she said. A novice or robot would hear “truly” and think, “Ooo, okay then, this person has strong reasons for confidence in her position.” But once you’ve heard intensifiers used this way several hundred times, you realize that it actually signals the opposite. No one says “I truly believe that” unless they know their belief is founded on nothing but a wish.

Several more “deeplys” and “trulys” popped up in the following days, all used in the same self-canceling way.

Then there was a tragic news story, the 20th anniversary of the disappearance of a local woman. “I truly believe with all my heart that she’s still alive,” said her mother to an offered microphone. My heart broke for her. In her position, I’d surely say and feel the same groundless things. Maybe I’d even intensify them to keep myself from despair.

But if I were an investigator of the crime, and a relative came to me and whispered, “I believe she’s still alive,” I’d say, “What? Have you heard something? Out with it!” But as soon as I heard “truly, with all my heart,” I’d nod and simply offer my sympathies, realizing there was nothing to it.

You’ll often hear “I deeply believe…” followed by a religious conviction. Not so often “I deeply believe” in evolution or the Krebs cycle. But just as I was getting all puffed up on that line of thought, Google — as she so often does, the saucy minx — rocked my confident assumptions like a conjugal trailer on Valentine’s Day. When I Googled the phrase, “I truly believe,” the second site from the top was British journalist Matthew Parris making this reasoned (if mildly patronizing) statement:

As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.

That’ll show me. It nicely confused my simple pigeonholes, always a good thing. And I have a feeling Parris — a pro-religion atheist who is a former Conservative politician and gay — does quite a bit of that.

I truly, deeply believe that we need more people like him.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.