When words lose their meaning: Everything is awesome

Have you noticed something? Everything these days is awesome. Your coffee order at Starbucks is, “Awesome!” or so says the barista. You’ve just told the drycleaner that you’re dropping off two suit jackets. That, too, is “Awesome.” The sad truth is that when everything is awesome, nothing is awesome.

When did those of us who publish books get so crabby? But we are crabby about this kind of devaluation of formerly useful words.

Many years ago, we were the ones who cringed every time someone said that something was “groovy.” We just gritted our teeth and hoped that the day would come when it would die out. It did.

But now we have a bigger problem because the word we are having a problem with is a real word that has a specific definition that dates to the sixteenth century.  “Groovy” on the other hand, has a somewhat looser provenance. And in case you’re at all interested, the word groovy wasn’t created by the flower power generation. Its origin goes back further than that, showing up as early as the 1920’s coined by jazz musicians. At the time it related to “being in the groove” which is at least relevant. How awesome ended up in our vernacular in such a ubiquitous and irrelevant way is a different story.

It seems it dates to 1960’s surf slang then came into wide use in the 1980’s via a movie called Fast Times at Ridgemont High (which I’m delighted to report I have not seen). It also appeared in The Official Preppy Handbook in 1980 (which I’m delighted to say I have, indeed, read).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “awesome” variously as profoundly reverential and inspiring awe. Other definitions suggest synonyms such as breathtaking, extremely impressive, stunning. You get the picture. And the definition hasn’t really changed. How it is used, however, has changed.

David

We used to use it in specific situations. I remember rounding the corner into the great hall at the Uffizi Museum in Florence, Italy to be confronted with Michelangelo’s David. It took my breath away it was so awesome. But just saying that seems to trivialize it and it was an experience that should not be trivialized.

Other things in life are awesome, too. The Grand Canyon, the eyes of your newborn baby.

But no more. Awesome is a great word – or at least it used to be. Now it’s a throw-away word that writers can no longer use.

I order the Caesar salad. “Awesome,” says the server. Really? Awesome? No, it is not. When a word can be applied to anything, it means nothing. A writer can no longer use it. So sad to lose such a good word.

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