Awesome. From Shakespeare’s time the word has meant exactly what it said: something that inspires awe.
A sky full of towering thunderheads stitched with jagged bolts of lightning — that would be awesome. A forest fire at its furious worst — definitely awesome. So too, a military barrage, a waterfall, a field of golden wheat winnowed by the wind.
And awesome needn’t be enormous. The transformation of a caterpillar into a Monarch butterfly is decidedly awesome, as is the exoskeleton of a cricket or the machinations of a honey bee. The guts of a humble wristwatch are awesome to behold; and ‘awesome’ fits a Bach prelude like an ivory-hilted stiletto in a doeskin sheath.
A grand word, awesome, and it has served us well. But somewhere along the way word mutated, morphed and bloated into semantic meaninglessness.
This morning in a coffee shop I said “I’ll have a medium coffee, black, please.” “Awesome,” the barista said.
No. No, that’s not awesome. As cups of coffee go, it turned out to be not half bad, but ‘okay’ is several light years from ‘awesome’.
Over the past little while I’ve been informed by, or overheard people affirming that: they’ve purchased an awesome T-shirt, watched an awesome commercial, eaten an awesome hamburger and met an awesome real estate agent. I’d like to believe that all these experiences were as jaw-droppingly life-altering as the adjective ‘awesome’ implies. But somehow I doubt it.
Exuberance is an admirable quality, but it’s a seasoning, not a staple food. Too much relish can ruin a perfectly adequate hot dog.
The hyper-inflating trajectory of the word awesome reminds me of the early twentieth century Deutschmark. One day the German currency was hardy and stable, worth the equivalent of a modern Canadian loony, give or take. The next day a wheelbarrow full of thousand-Deutschmark banknotes wouldn’t buy you a bratwurst.
‘Awesome’ is undergoing the linguistic equivalent. There is a book in your local bookstore called The Book of Awesome. You’ll find it sitting cheek by jowl, by another book entitled The Book of Even More Awesome.
Call me prophetic, but I foresee future best sellers with names like The Even Awesomer Book of Awesome, and Son of Book of Awesome Take Two, the Sequel.
It’s not just books. There is an Awesome Foundation in San Francisco. In Massachusetts there is an Institute of Higher Awesome Studies. How long before someone brings out the Awesome potato peeler, Awesome detergent, or Awesome chewing gum?
I think it would be refreshing to sequester the word ‘awesome’ for a spell. Give it a time out, a sabbatical, a little shore leave. We’ve got lots of bench strength to take up the slack — we could always buy a ‘splendid’ T shirt, watch a ‘hilarious’ commercial, eat a ‘delicious’ hamburger and meet a ‘mesmerizing’ real estate agent. The A-word could be resting in rehab, regaining its former lustre and glory.
Now that would be truly awesome.
— This column appears every Tuesday in The NEWS. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.