One of

One of the worst mistakes a promoter, reporter or commentator can make is understating their subject’s significance. Indeed, an important part of their duty is to convince their audience that they are witnessing something amazing and special, and in order to do so, they often use lofty praise and exaltation. A common tactic we see is the placement of the phrase “one of” before a declaration of supremacy. Here are some examples:

  • One of the most dynamic athletes in the division.
  • One of the winningest coaches in the league.
  • One of the biggest events in history.
  • One of the most beautiful women on the planet.
  • One of the greatest players of all time.
  • One of the world’s wealthiest businessmen.

This strategy seems to perfectly allow for elevation of a subject without stating its dominance and thereby diminishing others. For example, if a commentator were to claim that a player was the best in the sport, then he is also implying that other players are worse than him. This creates a problem for those who frequently cite the greatness of people or events, since logic forbids them to only ascribe supremacy to one target.

However, if the speaker prefaces the statement of supremacy with “one of”, then they are free to make this claim about anyone or anything that is arguably nearly supreme. This simple and often unnoticed modification makes the statement slightly more ambiguous and less meaningful, but increases its versatility substantially. Instead of being restricted to having only one player who is the greatest, we can have ten, twenty or even hundreds of players who are all one of the greatest.

In addition to increasing inclusivity by using this preface, the descriptors and conditions can be made more specific in order to allow anyone or anything to be described as “one of” in some category. The phrase makes the statement more flexible, but if we then narrow the scope by reducing the geographic area or window of time and use highly-specialized areas, we can create a near-infinite number of categories in which to crown something or someone one of the greatest. After all, there’s no denying that Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time, but the title of one of the greatest high school basketball players in Michigan state is much more inclusive. Here are some other examples:

  • One of the most delicious organic fruit smoothies around.
  • One of the funniest talk show hosts in daytime television.
  • One of the most gripping action films of the summer.
  • One of the best pastry chefs in the city.
  • One of the most effective exercise routines for pregnant women.
  • One of the most reliable trucks in its class.

By avoiding a declaration of supremacy and identifying specific qualities in certain situations or locations, we can make anyone or anything one of the best something somewhere. It’s worth noting that these tactics are not only employed by professionals, for we often use them in everyday conversation to generate hype for our cool new phone or favorite musician. Even if the phone isn’t the fastest, it could easily be one of the fastest. And perhaps if it isn’t one of the fastest, it’s certainly one of the fastest in its price range. And maybe we can’t prove that our favorite musician is the most successful or talented, but no one would argue with us if we say that they are one of the most stylish and innovative of a particular genre.

Unfortunately there’s a problem with this method of promotion. By expanding the statement to include anyone or anything that could arguably be the greatest something somewhere, we’re essentially reducing the statement’s meaning to, “this thing is pretty good,” which isn’t much of a compliment. This issue is worsened by our inclination to avoid concrete statements in favor of ambiguous positivity. Let’s look at three reasons why we do this.

First, our desire to avoid negativity means that we will often abstain from making statements that could hurt others. For example, choosing a best man or maid of honor might make others in the wedding party feel inferior. Second, our aversion to commitment often forbids us from saying things we may later recant or regret. Third, our general aversion to difficulty means that we will take the path of least resistance.  In this case it means defaulting to the “one of” phrase, even if it’s fairly obvious that the thing is the best.

The matter may even be trivial, but we’d rather not waste the energy to determine whether or not the it is inconsequential enough for us to safely issue a declaration of supremacy. This becomes extremely obvious when we refrain from stating a simple opinion by refusing to select a favorite. When asked to identify our favorite food, movie or music, we are often unable to answer definitively and instead respond with something like, “I’m not sure, but blank is definitely up there.”

In summary, we don’t call things the best because it’s offensive, because we’re scared to commit and because it’s easier to qualify a statement rather than actually figure out if it’s true. This leaves us in a world full of people and things that are all one of the best in some category – a world where everyone is great. And in a world where everyone is great, no one is great. If we praise every athlete, child, product, artist or event, then true greatness becomes unrecognizable, lost in a sea of ambiguous and inclusive praise.

Commit. Say things that matter. Call something the best.

A Mother’s Care

Kitten, kid, calf or child,
there’s one drink they desire.
A gift that only mothers give,
pale, rich and required.

When flowing out of cattle’s teat,
no prefix you will find.
But from a goat, we always note,
to keep the source in mind.

Yet when one of our Ernest young,
longs for a mother’s care,
we don’t recall from whom it came,
but we do recall from where.