"Adequate" and "satisfactory" as superlatives in the 1920s?

In 1920s era home plan catalogs, like those from Sears and other companies, testimonials were usually included along with the descriptions of the houses. However, the testimonials weren’t glowing by today’s standards; they’re usually along the lines of …

“I have found this house to be perfectly satisfactory for my needs. The kitchen is particularly sufficient.”


“The Chesterfield has an adequate floor plan which my family finds to be satisfactory. The quality of the materials was acceptable.”

Other ads and catalog listings I’ve seen from the 1920s include such … well, adequate-sounding testimonials from product users.

The context of words like “satisfactory” and “adequate” in those testimonials seems like, at one time, those words were once thought of as superlatives. Was that the case?

Sears catalog testimonial:

“This is the most adequate death-ray available today. Its zapping power is quite satisfactory”

Sorry, but it was inevitable

Ah, they’re “adequate” and “satisfactory” death rays.

Damn you Joe Random.

Holy cats…it only took three posts. I think the S.D.R faction is getting off its game. That’s supermergatriod, as far as I am concerned.

*Dear Sirs,

I have found the Sears Roebuck and Company “Clementine” model death ray to serve its function in a most satisfactory way. The Clemtine is particularly useful for eliminating varmints, stray dogs, and the Irish. Should the need arise to buy another death ray, I shall again be considering the Clementine, for it is an adequate and suitable appliance.

Geo. Smith
Xenia, O.*

Okay, now that I got that out of my system … were words that mean “just okay” now, like “satisfactory,” “fine” and “adequate,” considered superlatives in the earlier part of the century?

Those words weren’t superlatives, but they actually matched their dictionary definitions: e.g. “satisfactory” really did mean “providing satisfaction” and “adequate” meant “sufficient to meet a need.”

Usage – and perhaps more imporantly, 80 years of incessant hype in advertising – has weakened these words to the point where they mean virtually the opposite of their definitions in everyday usage.

For example, if you say, “He’s an adequate worker” these days, what people hear is, “he’s just this far from being incompetent,” not “he fills his job well.”

We’ve become so inured to hype that in order to say something does what we want it to, we have to say it’s great! fabulous! exceptional! Mere adequacy is no longer enough.

Awesome Wupus!


Ah, they’re 1920’s style “Death Rays.”