People love lists and litanies of superlative adjectives. The best. The most. The funniest. The smartest. The cheapest. The strongest. The fastest. Some of these can’t be measured. Best is a fun metric, but it has no good unit of measurement. But while some can’t be measured, others can be measured in lots of different ways. Which is the cheapest car to own? The cheapest to buy? The cheapest to maintain? The one that takes the least amount of gas?
One of my favorite quotes is a wonderful Churchillism, one that he attributed to some unknown antecedent:
Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
What a wonderfully humble way to say that democracy is the best. It is, but there’s still lots of problems and concerns. Saying it this way reminds us that we need to constantly work for it.
In one of his essays, Paul Graham uses a similar construct to suggest that Cambridge, Massachusetts is the intellectual capital of the world. He says:
I realize that seems a preposterous claim. What makes it true is that it’s more preposterous to claim about anywhere else.
The Best Test
Statements like this can serve as a good way to reasonably evaluate our favorite superlatives. It will seem preposterous to say anything is The Best. So the best is the least preposterously stated.
I’m not sure if there’s a name for this figure of speech. The closest I’ve found is the litotes; using understatement to emphasize a point, but that’s not quite it.
I call this The Best Test, and it can be used for all sorts of adjectives that either can’t be measured, or can be measured in multiple ways. And in a twist of meta-evaluation, the name fits because this actually is The Best Test there is. Because it’s more ridiculous to say that about any other superlative adjective evaluation.