“I phoned him multiple times.”
“The building has multiple exits.”
Not so long ago, the “multiple” in these sentences would have read “several.”
“I phoned him several times.”
“The building has several exits.”
Somehow, while we were not really paying attention, “multiple” stole into our language and displaced “several” in a bloodless coup.
The question is why. I think we can blame police language, as in the “victim was shot multiple times.”
And I think we know what’s happening here. Police spokespeople like to dress their remarks in extra dignity and they do this by reaching for their “best” vocabulary. People become persons or perpetrators. Guns become firearms. And they are not fired; they are “discharged.” The victim has multiple wounds. It just sounds more official, more commanding, more large and in charge. Don’t worry. Your city is safe with us.
In the case of “I phoned him multiple times,” the speaker signals a certain impatience. As if there is an absolute limit to the number of times we should have to phone someone and that limit has been reached. Damnit!
Why should we want to sound more official, more in control? Why should we want to sound more bureaucratic. Especially when the rest of the culture is becoming both more informal and more playful. Why, exactly, would we want to resemble police spokespeople. I have no answers here. Only vexing, cultural questions.