Page last updated at 10:23 GMT, Monday, 27 April 2009 11:23 UK

The death of 100%

The Apprentice candidates
Four candidates = 440% effort

Before the days of linguistic inflation, 100% was considered enough. But no longer, says Chris Bowlby, in a personal reflection on how language has changed.

How committed are you to finishing this article? 110%? Maybe 150%? Or, if you're in the US, perhaps 1,000% is what you need to say to show you really care.

But hang on a minute. Isn't 100% meant to be the limit, as far as you can go?

There once was a time when 100% really meant something. That was the top figure you could commit, or the maximum you were allowed for a mortgage, 100% of your house's value.

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More or Less is on BBC Radio 4
Listen to the programme here

But then came linguistic - as well as mortgage - inflation. It began in a very modest, British kind of way. Susie Dent, a writer and language expert, has been delving in the old dictionaries and thinks the breach may have come in the early 1980s when British ice-dancing stars were hoping for Olympic glory.

"The first citation comes from a biography of Torville and Dean. It said they were going to put in nothing less than 101%, so possibly that's when things began to edge upwards".

Where ice skating biographers began modestly, footballers and their managers soon strode in more confidently.

Promising to give 110% became the norm in post-match interviews. It was a useful follow-up after, depending on the result, you'd explained why you were "over the moon" or "sick as a parrot".

But why 110% exactly? Perhaps it was all those players' and managers' agents - the Mr Ten Per Cents - who made sure there was 100% for their clients plus 10% for them.

Return to 100

It wasn't just football that was infected. Susie Dent says it has all been part of a "bigging up" of language. Think of the way we say superhero instead of just hero, and feel the need to add "über" or "mega" to make words sound more impressive.

Percentages inflated under the same kind of pressure. And poor old 100% was left looking, she says, "a bit paltry".

A return to 100% as a kind of limit might well be popular

Listen to the thrusting young entrepreneurs on a TV show like The Apprentice. You can hear the inflation happening as they try to outdo each other promising many percentage points more effort than any of their rivals. In the US, it's claimed the going rate for some job applications is to promise no less than 1,000% commitment.

But could all this be changing? Employers are becoming less and less impressed by job candidates whose inflated promises seem out of all proportion to their actual qualifications and performance.

And as we enter gloomier times economically, inflated percentages can seem scary rather than inspiring. For those who took out 125% mortgages and now see house prices plummeting, the loss of the old 100% limit is much more than a linguistic joke.

So a return to 100% as a kind of limit might well be popular with those bewildered by the way we've been playing fast and loose with our percentages.

Adjustment for footballers and thrusting entrepreneurs will be harder. But if they were told that a bit of linguistic deflation was 110% desirable, agreement might yet be possible.

You can hear Chris Bowlby's report on BBC Radio 4's More or Less here . The programme is produced in association with the Open University.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

As Richard Ayoade said in Garth Merenghi's Dark Place; "I'm backing him 110% that means I can backtrack 10% and still be 100% behind him"
Dan, London

You could argue that you were comparing against a normal persons output, which you were then surpassing, so you would be performing at 110% of their best, rather than of yours. That doesn't stop people who say it being any less than 100% annoying though.
Tom, Maidstone, UK

This is nothing new! My father - born in 1897 - was very musical and over 100 years ago took part in violin competition. The judges awarded him 10 out of 10 - yet he came second! A girl who played after him, and no doubt played better, was (pragmatically) given a score of 11 (out of 10). So in our family, the ultimate performance became 11 out of 10 !
Bill Bowmar, Bishops Stortford, England

Anything over 100% doesn't exist. It's an annoying way of asking people to do better than actually possible and ironically used by people of status, ie teachers and coaches etc. It's confusing to youngsters learning that 100% is a whole and an incredibly annoying thing that seems to have been taken on by far too many people. Every one should do their best to stop this!
James, Leeds

This is just one example of the silly exaggerations which exist in everyday language. My particular pet hates include "devastated" which is now used to mean "disappointed "or "dismayed". "Devastated" used to be reserved for the reaction of someone who had suffered an appalling physical or mental shock so let's get real.
Helen, Swanscombe, UK

I blame Spinal Tap and their amplifiers - which were the only ones that go up to 11. This would date linguistic inflation to 1984.
Martyn Simpson, Breukelen, NL

I drank a cup of tea whilst reading this article. Therefore I only gave 109.25% of my attention. Sorry... Will try to do better next time.
Chris Needham, Hill Head, UK

I always assume that anyone offering 110% effort is some kind of fool. 100% is the maximum amount of effort that anyone can do, by very definition. Although I don't see many workers putting in about more than 40% effort at best: The slackers all seem to take at least 12 hours off a day! Surely 100% effort would require working flat out, 24 hours a day?
Mike, Norwich

I work in Further Education teaching numeracy and IT. No wonder many of the students don't understand the concept of percentages (that 100% is the whole of something) when all they hear is talk of "giving 110%" spouted forth from football managers and media all the time.
Alastair, Edinburgh

Even saying your giving 100% feels like one of those cheap middle management marketing speak phrases. As if we would ever answer " Actually I'm currently only giving 76%, maybe after lunch and a rest it will be up to 84%" Complete tosh. To the people who answer 110, 200, 500 and above it's a terrible sign at just how low and dumbed down they are prepared to stoop to get a job. You would think Alan Sugar had more sense about him than to perpetuate such nonsense. Maybe he should "drill down" to find out exactly what it means to the respective candidate?
Alastair, Drogheda, Ireland

As someone once pointed out, if you promise 110% then you are immediately 10% in debt, and that's not a good place to be starting from!
Dan, Guildford

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