What would be awesome is if I never hear the word awesome again in the way it has now come to be used. The Grand Canyon is awesome. The fact that there is a comet somewhere out in the vast icy reaches of space traveling at one million four hundred and forty thousand miles an hour is awesome. But “yes thank you, I will have fries with my cheeseburger” is not, I repeat, not “awesome.”
The unabridged edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language lists the first definition of awe as; “an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like: in awe of God; in awe of authority.” The last time I had a side of fries they were not “awesome”, they were frozen.
Perhaps this is me just getting old, but I am a bit concerned that many words in our beautiful and expressive language have become utterly devalued as well as misused. If one’s response of “paper” to the question “paper or plastic?” elicits an “awesome”, what word might we then possibly utter in response to the knowledge that in just our Milky Way galaxy alone there are some four hundred billion stars, the closest one – not counting the sun – Alpha Centauri, being twenty four trillion eight hundred-and-ninety billion miles from us, and that there are some two to four hundred billion other galaxies in the universe the last time I checked, and that the Hubble Space Telescope detected quasars moving in space at speeds approaching four to six times faster than the speed of light, which is one hundred eighty-six thousand miles per second or six hundred seventy million miles per hour, and that there are, in the opinion of most of the world’s leading physicists, other universes besides the one in which our planet resides? What word indeed exists to describe all that? If the answer to the question what did you think of the last episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is “awesome” then what on earth can we say of the vast seemingly unending mystery that is the cosmos?
Also, I get the distinct feeling that even after Mr. Alexander Fleming told Mrs. Alexander Fleming over the Sunday roast that he’d just discovered penicillin she did not say “awesome.”
It suddenly occurs to me that Alexander the Great, Katherine the Great, Peter the Great, and all of the other Greats, could not have been all that “Great” or else they’d have been called Alexander the Awesome, Katherine the Awes– you get the idea. Having written that, it now also occurs to me that Alexander’s elders, especially his crotchety old grandfather probably muttered something under his breath like “Great? What’s great is beer!”
And speaking of great, in all of the almost five thousand years of the world’s great literature the word awesome appears only seven times! Okay, I made that last one up…but you get the idea.
Linguistic skills, a person’s ability to use as much of the full range of tools available in any vocabulary in order to express oneself concisely, has always been a measure of intelligence. The elegance of a well constructed, carefully nuanced sentence has always been the hallmark of a well-read, well-educated, and cultured individual. It appears now though that there exists such a climate of anti-education, anti-intellectualism, that these linguistic skills have deteriorated to the point where too much of what is the current idiom is, to my mind, made up of hyperbole. This is made more distressing by the knowledge that an uneducated un-read public has made itself ripe for exploitation by those who would capitalize on the ignorance of others. I apologize for suddenly getting serious here, but every time I hear someone exclaim *“incredible”, *“unbelievable”,* fantastic”, and yes, “awesome”, in response to something as mundane as well, a hair-do, or a jelly doughnut, I just can’t help but wonder if they actually read, if they ever talk about ideas as opposed to gossip, and if they can be trusted to think critically. It scares me to think that some of these people may have actually been able to find their way into a voting booth.
You may think that I am extrapolating quite a bit here solely from hearing someone say something like * “the skiing was fabulous”- unless I see they are joking – I do not think I am. All I am hearing them say instead is “I haven’t a clue as to what’s going on in the world, or in my country, or in my city, I don’t read, I couldn’t answer two questions on Cash Cab, and what’s more I really don’t care, could you pass the ketchup”. And then not even a please or thank you, (which would approach fabulousity).
I used to co-habit with an intelligent, artistic, lovely woman of German descent who reserved the remark “it’s okay” for anything she deemed praiseworthy; a Magritte, the poetry of Rilke, the Taj Mahal…whenever she said “it’s okay” about something I’d written I knew I was right in suspecting that perhaps it really didn’t suck too badly after all. I am certain her response to hearing someone say “awesome” to anything less than a bolt of lightning shooting down from the sky and leveling a skyscraper, would turn out to be German for moron.
Just the other day a youngish man asked me for some directions, having just ended his cell phone conversation which loudly alerted anyone standing within thirty feet of him that he was trying to decide whether or not to have a vasectomy. I told him it was three forty, he said “awesome”. What I have been wondering is this; was three forty an “awesome” time? Was it the fact that an older person like me even knew what time it was “awesome”? Was it perhaps “awesome” that I knew how to tell him how to get where he wanted to go? Was pondering this worth almost getting hit by the M66 cross-town bus?
Two days later I may have answered some of these questions when I held open the door to one of Manhattan’s two-hundred-and-fifty-seven Duane Reade stores for a young lady and, what do you know, heard her say “awesome”, and it struck me right then and there that perhaps awesome has become the new thank you. Which leads me to wonder what has happened not only to please and thank you (and excuse me), but to the word extraordinary? Extraordinary is a perfect word for our time. It’s not awesome, it’s not unbelievable, it’s certainly not incredible, and yet it is so much more than ordinary. It’s extra ordinary. Why has this lovely word been forsaken by most of us? Wouldn’t it have been more fitting for her to thank me by saying “extraordinary” in view of the fact that I held that door open for her way beyond the fourteen feet of separation rule?
I supposed I’ll just have to man up as they say, whoever they are, and get used to the fact that our language is being dumbed down, being slowly scrubbed clean of it’s elegance, it’s nuance… I will say though, and it pains me to admit this, that just the other day I thought; if I can just get this four hundred and seventy five dollar traffic ticket dismissed, that might really be – you got it dude – awesome!
*incredible: 1. impossible, or very difficult to believe. (I mean, darling, that dress is incredible!)
*unbelievable: 1. implausible, too unrealistic or improbable to be believed. (I mean, this new plunger is unbelievable yo!)
*fantastic: 1. Conceived or appearing as if conceived by an unrestrained imagination; grotesque; eccentric; odd: (I mean, who did that fantastic nose job!)
And, (drum roll) the word that contains the meaning of two of the words defined above;
*fabulous: 1. almost unbelievable; incredible. 3. Purely imaginary; told about in fables.
( I mean, like I thought the skiing was fabulous, but this knish is like really fabulous!)