In 1881 the First Boer War ended. Folk hero and outlaw Billy the Kid was shot and killed. Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell formed the Oriental Telephone Company. And the phrase “high quality” made its earliest known appearance, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
“To make the pieces lighter by the use of high quality material (such as steel), or by subdivision, to make them lighter because more numerous,” runs the passage in an engineering handbook.
Thus began nearly 140 years of using “high quality” or “high-quality” as an adjective to modify dense products or materials including Donald Trump Jr.
This week, President Donald Trump’s eldest son released a series of emails in response to a New York Times investigation. In one 2016 message he says he’d “love” damaging information about Hillary Clinton. It didn’t matter that the information was supposedly “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” The revelations led to questions even from a few reliable Trump voices, as the administration’s Russia problems deepened.
In response, a few hours after the disclosure, President Trump released a statement, saying his son is “a high-quality person.”
Do “high-quality” advisers shamelessly pursue dubious information from foreign governments? Do they leave an incriminating digital trail, amid a campaign obsessed with email security? Is Jr., an individual who once tweeted out a Skittles meme to imply the danger of Muslims, actually a “high-quality” man?
That is beside the linguistic point, because it’s not exactly surprising that Trump used the term to describe his son. He has used it many times to describe people including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, newbie Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and future politician Tom Brady, not to mention both the outgoing and incoming heads of the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. Plus the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, and Trump’s wife, Melania Trump.
Given a group like the above, one might imagine that high-quality might be synonymous with “supportive of Trump.”
High-quality fits with some of the other superlatives Trump uses, from “fantastic” and “terrific” to “very good.” Those words can be deployed to describe people ranging from the authoritarian president of Egypt to disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who the White House said lied about conversations with the Russian ambassador to Vice President Mike Pence, among other alleged misdeeds.
Similar words are also used by Trump to describe items such as steaks or the exteriors and interiors of his hotels and properties. Therein we might find a main reason for Trump the businessman’s loose use of high-quality.
A brief history of “high quality”
Linguist Ben Zimmer notes that since those 19th century origins, high-quality has largely been used to describe things, not human beings.
Zimmer points to tools such as Google’s nGram Viewer and the Corpus of Contemporary English that track the way words appear in print over time. For much of the industrialized 20th century, what came after high-quality were tactile items like steel, products, or goods. The term jumped in popularity in the second half of the century, decreasing slightly in recent decades.
A mostly slower development has been the use of high-quality to describe care, work or even protein. Because “teaching” is considered in this country something of a product perhaps, that makes the lists, too.
The president may be taking those linguistic developments to their logical conclusion, falling back on his experiences in the world of luxury construction and using language more suitable for a well-made window to take the measure of the humans around him. For a businessman who was never quite the builder he advertised, perhaps high-quality appealed given its tough and tactile origins. Perhaps he has knocked a discerning fist on the exterior of his son and was satisfied by the dull thud. “Looks good,” he might say, “I’ll take fifty k more of those.”
In Trump’s world those who remain loyal members of Team Trump need only be described by the black-and-white utilitarian designation. They work well for him.
The problem that even his language cannot save him from is that buyers might tire of the product he’s selling.