by Kevin Burton
Good day you awesome readers! Are you sick yet of the word “awesome”?
The term’s overuse is sparking some awesome outrage among speakers of English. Some generational friction emerges when you look into who is cool with “awesome” and who is not.
“Awesome” started with the California surfer crowd and was popularized by Sean Penn’s character in the movie ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High,’ wrote Gabrielle from the USA on a reader response section of the British magazine The Guardian.
She is probably right about the launching point of the term’s popularity, but she goes on to say “awesome” is out of favor. It clearly is not.
“I am almost 56 and I am sick to death of the word ‘awesome,’ wrote Guardian reader Anne Watman of Monroe, Wisconsin. “I get that people in their teens and 20s like to use words that are popular with their age group. But, everyone has picked up on this word and it is overused to the point that it makes me gag,”
“I’m hearing it in advertising and my friends use it (especially if they have children). Awesome used to mean something spectacular, overwhelming, like a range of mountains with a beautiful sunset. Now it means anything from a new pair of shoes to having a nice day. I’m really sick of it,” Watman writes.
“I’m 24 and I use ‘awesome’ frequently. I think its charm is that it’s versatile,” counters Guardian reader Kate from Arlington, Virginia. “You can use awesome to mean ‘great’ or, with the right inflection, to mean ‘terrible.’ But use of the word is half-ironic even when it’s meant to express approval: for my self-conscious, retro generation, it’s a perfect word.”
“Yesterday a reader asked ‘Is it just me, or is the word ‘awesome’ overused?” wrote Alyssa Rosenberg in the Washington Post under the headline “The Tyranny of “awesome.”
“This person wrote. ‘When something is described as ‘awesome’ these days, it probably isn’t awesome. Why do you think this word has become so popular?”
“The easy answer is that slang is cyclical,” Rosenberg wrote. “But the rise of “awesome” seems to me to be related to something else:
“I think both enthusiasm and outrage are presently overused as modes of discourse. When we spend all of our time in these two states of reaction, the world gets kind of flattened out. We can’t tell the difference between a well-intentioned faux pas and malign intent, or between a cinematic masterpiece and something that just made us feel good for the moment,” Rosenberg writes.
“Awesome. I would advise any entrepreneur who aspires to be taken more seriously to eliminate this ubiquitous word from his or her vocabulary,” writes Tim Askew in Inc. magazine. “Urbandictionary.com describes awesome as ‘something Americans use to describe everything.’ When something describes everything, it describes nothing.”
My go-to dictionary Merriam-Webster writes, “We understand such pique in this matter. But we also must point out, to the many who are bothered by the broadened meaning of awesome, that we are a descriptivist dictionary.”
“When confronted with evidence of widespread and specific semantic use, we are compelled to make note of it and proceed accordingly. Although we do define awesome as both “inspiring awe” and “expressive of awe,” we also offer a definition for the word’s informal use: “terrific, extraordinary.” We do so because there are numerous examples of people, many of whom are quite educated, using awesome in that exact way,” Merriam–Webster writes.
“Awesome isn’t the only controversial word in the awe family,” the dictionary points out. “Hester Lynch Piozzi, writing in 1794, said of the word awful that it “should however be used with caution, and a due sense of its importance; I have heard even well-bred ladies now and then attribute that term too lightly in their common conversation…” Where it once was used to mean “full of awe,” awful is now primarily bandied about as a simple synonym for objectionable or bad.
“The English-speaking people have also roughed up the adverb awfully, adding to the initial meaning (“in a manner that inspires awe”) one with the pedestrian function of a mere intensifier (“exceedingly, extremely, very”).
When it comes to the overuse of awesome, I am part of the problem, not the solution. “Awesome” often slips out before I can think of a more exact word. My mother calls me on this every time.
But she doesn’t like the word “underdog” and uses the clunky phrase “least favored” in its place. So she needs to grant be an accidental awesome now and then.
What’s the remedy for awesome? No amount of lexicographic soap-boxing will rid us of the term. What we will need is another fad word to drive it out, some word from a movie or a rap song.