Sunday, November 28, 2010

Nowadays awesome is not quite so awesome as it used to be.

In my last post I think I fairly definitively nailed my colours to the mast of anti-pedantry. So it might seem strange that I'm now going to give vent to a pet peeve. But if even Stephen Fry, in his marvellous paean to linguistic freedom, 'Don't mind your language ...' (see below), can admit to 'nails on the blackboard' moments that make him 'wince', then I feel I'm allowed to do the same, just this once. (That's a lie for a start; I bet there will be more at some stage later.)

We probably all have our pet peeves when it comes to language, and as long as that’s all they are, just peeves, all well and good. The problems start when we try to lay down the law as to what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, linguistically speaking. So please note, I am not on any moral crusade here, just slightly peeved.

Languages change, and words can change their meaning over time; of course I accept that. For example I realise that when a country is decimated, it doesn’t now mean that the invader kills every tenth person. Although that’s what it did once mean, apparently coming from the name of a form of collective punishment in the Roman army. This change in meaning occurred a long way before my time. On the other hand it does still seem to bother some people. (see below)

That the word notorious, which used to simply mean famous or well known, now means famous for negative reasons, as in: ‘he’s a notorious liar’, doesn’t bother me one iota. We definitely needed such a word for such people. Or that sophisticated, which originally meant ‘corrupted, impure; no longer simple or natural’, is now seen to have a positive quality, as in Duke Ellington’s ‘Sophisticated Lady’. Although I still have that nagging suspicion at the back of my mind that such sophistication is somehow artificial, ‘not natural’.

I can sympathise with those people who miss being able to use gay in its original sense of happy, merry, full of joy. But I accept its new use, which in any case doesn’t seem to be all that new, for the greater good. After all we’ve now almost lost the word jolly, which had a very similar meaning, and which seems to be dying of entirely natural causes, without any help from the homosexual community.

Most of these changes in meaning happened a long time ago, so we are used to them. Awful is another word that apparently changed its meaning a long time ago. It used to mean literally ‘full of awe’, but now means something bad or extreme: ‘that coffee was awful’; ‘I’m awfully tired’.

But when words change meaning, or in this case intensity of meaning, before your very eyes, it can be difficult to stomach. I suppose that’s how the defenders of ‘gay’ felt. And that‘s how I feel about ‘awesome’. Let’s look at some definitions:


  • 1 very impressive or very difficult and perhaps rather frightening (Oxford Advanced Learner's)
  • 1 causing awe; dreaded. 2 colloq completely and utterly wonderful. (Chambers)
  • 1 expressive of awe. 2 a : inspiring awe. b : terrific, extraordinary (Merriam-Webster)

and Oxford Advanced Learner's gives these examples:

  • an awesome sight
  • awesome beauty/power
  • They had an awesome task ahead.

So what is this awe they keep talking about, in both awesome and awful? Let’s go back to those dictionaries.


  • feelings of respect and slight fear; feelings of being very impressed by something/somebody (Oxford Advanced Learner's)
  • admiration, fear and wonder (Chambers)
  • an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime (Merriam-Webster)

This is the sort of feeling you have when you see an Archangel perhaps, or see the Grand Canyon or hear Mahler’s Ninth Symphony for the first time. It’s not a word we normally throw around lightly and on an everyday basis.

Now my peeve is that in its current use awesome has lost this idea of specialness. It doesn’t fit with Chambers’ ’completely and utterly wonderful’, or Merriam-Websters’ ‘terrific, extraordinary’ any more. It generally seems to mean something like ‘pretty good’. Have you noticed how every electronic gadget or piece of software that comes onto the market is now awesome, or has some awesome feature? I mean, they’re good, yes, but are they really ’completely and utterly wonderful’? Personally, I blame YouTube, which used to have a ratings system going from (I think) - ‘it sucks’ to ‘awesome’, and Apple and all those other manufacturers of electronic wizardry so keen to get us excited. And have you also noticed how we don’t ‘use’ XYZ’s equipment any more, we have an ‘XYZ experience’. And if at all possible, an ‘awesome XYZ experience’.

And it even appears on one of my favourite websites - MBA Watch, which charts business buzzwords (see previous post) . In it he describes as awesome the expression:

feature/scope creep (n.) - The temptation to add more and more features to a product release until it becomes a confused mass of incongruous elements, twisted and evil.

Now as he is poking fun at the use of these expressions, and I think that that ‘twisted and evil’ refers to the use of the expression (I’ve kept his punctuation), I assume he means that the expression is awesome in its awfulness.

Now I have to admit here that I cheated, and that Oxford Advanced Learners 'Dictionary doesn’t share my prejudice. For it has a secondary definition which I kind of deliberately forgot to mention before:

  • 2 (especially North American English, informal) - very good, enjoyable, etc
    I just bought this awesome new CD!
    Wow! That's totally awesome!

But it does rather prove my point - ‘very good’ does not have quite the same ring or intensity as ’completely and utterly wonderful’.

Which is perhaps why the blogger at the Lousy Linguist felt he had to use the following expression:

‘In truly one of the weirdest and most awesomest studies in a long time, ...’

Now the writer of that blog writes about linguistic matters, so we can be pretty sure that he used that grammatical howler (a double superlative) in the full knowledge of what he was doing. Why did he do this? Because he wanted to show us he had a whacky way with words? Or that he couldn’t care tuppence for grammatical orthodoxy? Or was it simply that awesome on its own is now so ordinary sounding that it needed that reinforcement? Who’s to know?

I just wonder what those people that use awesome as an everyday word will have in reserve when they do see something truly awesome like the Grand Canyon? Oh, I know: ‘Wow! Isn’t that just the most awesomest sight you’ve ever seen?

And now for some grammar. The word awesome is at the time of writing still an ungradable or absolute adjective, and so as you will undoubtedly remember, we can modify it with words such as totally and really, but not very. So: totally awesome, really awesome, but not: very awesome. And as you might also remember, when we use the modifier quite with an absolute adjective, the meaning is something like completely, absolutely. So in the sentence: ‘That thunderstorm storm was quite awesome’, the thunderstorm really was totally amazing. But if the meaning of awesome keeps getting devalued, it could soon become an ordinary gradable adjective, where quite has a totally different meaning. In that case that sentence about the thunderstorm would take on a new meaning - ‘Well, I suppose it was a bit awesome, but not much’. Not very likely perhaps, but worth a thought.


Stephen Fry and Don't mind your language ...
This wonderful, rumbustious, rollercoaster of a text should definitely form part of any future anthropology of 'The English Essay'. You can find the whole text here, but it will be a very difficult text for a non-native speaker, as Fry has a huge vocabulary and loves playing with it. Constantly. There is a shorter video version here, which includes the crux of his argument, and is accompanied by text, which may (or may not) be useful. Incidentally, in this part he touches on some of the changes I was discussing in the previous post.

In a recent book, 'Strictly English: The correct way to write ... and why it matters', Simon Heffer, associate editor of the Daily Telegraph and self-confessed pedant, says:

Another word that people insist on wrenching from its correct etymology is decimate. As every schoolboy knows, this was a punishment meted out to Roman legions, in which every 10th man was killed. Its correct sense in English, therefore, is the reduction of the strength of a body of people by 10 per cent. It does not mean more or less than that, though it is often used to describe the near elimination of a contingent, and has been wrongly used now for more than 100 years. Source.

In other words, he would like to take us back a hundred years. (Not far from the truth, most of the grammar works he quotes are apparently over sixty years old). I wonder how often this mathematical accuracy is achieved nowadays, and when we would actually be able to use this word.

You can read a review of the book here.

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