Words and Their Meanings: Awesome
It’s been quite some time since the most recent installment of my Words and Their Meanings series, but this will be the most awesome one of all. I say that with confidence because these days, anything can be awesome. A belt. A tuna sandwich. Anything.
On a recent visit to a local dining establishment with some friends, I was informed by my server that my food order was awesome. I’m not sure that I needed the pep talk since I had no insecurity about my selection. Still, it was thoughtful of the lad to offer such enthusiastic support. Indeed, his overwhelming approval seemed to extend to everyone at the table as each guest in turn was lavishly complimented on his or her choice of food with the same descriptor. And at the end of the meal, when I requested the check, I was told that that too was awesome. It seemed less so to me, as I regularly request a check at the end of a meal.
Currently for sale on line you'll find everything from "awesome shoes" to "awesome spot remover." Rap artists Macklemore and Ryan Lewis tell us in their song “Thrift Shop” that the whole process of thrift shopping is awesome. And the theme song for that great cinematic achievement The Lego Movie (which, tragically, I missed seeing) reports the awesome news that “Everything is Awesome.” Everything. (If you’ve yet to fulfill your annoyance quota for the day, I invite you to listen to this musical wonder here.) According to various YouTube offerings, people are awesome, animals are awesome, speedrunning is awesome, hockey players are awesome, lizards are awesome, Scottish street music is awesome, and structural engineers are awesome. There’s are videos dedicated to awesome wooden baskets, awesome tractor attachments, and party ideas that are not merely awesome, but also “borderline genius.”
Well, my word! There’s a lot that’s awesome.
Let’s review what the word means, yes? Dictionary.com defines it like so: “adjective. causing or inducing awe; inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear: an awesome sight. exhibiting or marked by awe; showing reverence, admiration, or fear.” Cambridge Dictionary says it means “causing feelings of great admiration, respect, or fear.” However, to the Curmudgeon’s annoyance, these and other sources now also include a secondary definition to accommodate the rampant misusage: “slang. very impressive: That new white convertible is totally awesome.” “informal: terrific, extraordinary: I had an awesome time at the concert.”
Those permissive hippies over at Merriam-Webster smirkingly point out that if one is going to object to the casual usage of “awesome,” one might just as well object to the casual usage of the word “awful,” which literally means full of awe, though it’s no longer used that way. This argument strikes me as no better than the linguistic equivalent of what’s known as the tu quoque logical fallacy (which I of course have known about for years and in no way just discovered while researching this piece), in which someone tries to discredit an opponent's argument by pointing out the opponent's failure to act consistently with his own argument, like so:
Ignatius: I assert that it’s unethical to clonk someone on the head with a mallet.
Hyacinth: But Ignatius, I’ll remind you that you once clonked someone on the head with a mallet, so there goes your argument, you hypocrite. I guess it’s not so unethical after all.
Ignatius: Fine. You win. (Clonks Hyacinth on the head with a mallet.)
The idea that one departure from accurate usage justifies all others is reckless and foolhardy and will destroy us all. Well . . . perhaps that’s hyperbole. Then again, so is calling a corndog “awesome.” So stick that in your tu quoque.
This practice of describing commonplace things in this overwrought manner is spreading like a linguistic cancer, such that people no longer register this errant use of "awesome" as hyperbole anymore. They just think it means jolly neato. I say we need our superlatives, and we need to save those superlatives for fitting applications. The ocean is awesome. The Grand Canyon is awesome. The universe is awesome. If Cheetos are also awesome, it rather reduces the ability of the word to do its job.
So as a public service, I offer the following alternatives for those seeking to express appreciation that doesn’t reach the level of awe (including many words that have already been stripped of their original meanings by years of misuse):
As we see, there are many apt and/or already ruined words at our disposal when we want to say that something is very, very good. Isn’t that . . . delightful?