The rhetoric of “excellence” is pervasive across the academy. It is used to refer to research outputs as well as researchers, theory and education, individuals and organisations, from art history to zoology. But what does “excellence” mean? Does it in fact mean anything at all? And is the pervasive narrative of excellence and competition a good thing? Drawing on a range of sources we interrogate “excellence” as a concept and find that it has no intrinsic meaning as used in the academy. Rather it functions as a linguistic interchange mechanism or boundary object. To investigate whether linguistic function is useful we examine how excellence rhetoric combines with narratives of scarcity and competition and show that hypercompetition that arises leads to a performance of “excellence” that is completely at odds with the qualities of good research. We trace the roots of issues in reproducibility, fraud, as well as diversity to the stories we tell ourselves as researchers and offer an alternative rhetoric based on soundness. “Excellence” is not excellent, it is a pernicious and dangerous rhetoric that undermines the very foundations of good research and scholarship.