Amazing is tribal noise’s second choice (behind “awesome,” discussed later) for expressing astonishment at a capability that seems either beyond a speaker’s current level of understanding, or beyond what he or she believe is possible. In this sense, amazing would have been the expression of choice among neolithic tribes in New Guinea to seeing propeller planes overfly and land during the Second World War. When the war ended, the combatants left the tribesmen to themselves. Abandoned but hopeful, the tribe assembled ersatz planes from native trees and leaves. They reverse engineered planes within the limits of their technology and understanding, then prayed to them. This, they believed, is how their planes, too, could fly. By divine inspiration.
The tribesmen of New Guinea were stuck with the tough task of constructing the product of modern industry and technology with stone age tools and materials. Or they could perhaps rehabilitate machines they had seen flying. But aircraft abandoned in place by Australians or Americans proved unwilling to repeat their amazing flying act, so the tribe then set about erecting effigies of the planes that had introduced them to such amazing things before their God cursed them by ending the war. Mystified by the requirements of flight, they then built wooden mock-ups of planes and devoutly worshiped them.
Anthropologists call these rigidly believing groups cargo cults. Their prayers expressed a yearning for the returning of the gods from the sky, so they could shower the believers with an earthly heaven of previously unexperienced marvels. These tribes were the first believers in trickle down economics. The flying gods had delivered modern marvels, then abruptly left. Maybe they were now filling up their planes with goods and were heading back. All things, they believed, come to those who wait and pray. Each day held the tense anxiety of a crowd awaiting a K-Mart store opening on Black Friday. As early as 1945, demand for global business had been stimulated, but there was no supply side advantage. Cargo cults had no denominated currency or profitably exploitable resources. Nor did it inspire commercial assurance that many of the native highlanders were head hunters and cannibals.
In the simplest denotation of the word amazing, Funk and Wagnalls equates the word (an adjective) to “anything causing amazement.” But this is tautological lexicography, where a definition falls back upon an unexplained meaning of the root word to define its derivative. It then elaborates that amazement is something that causes astonishment, or creates a sense of wonder.
This poverty of meaning forces the curious, intelligent speaker to retreat to the root word of the gerund, which is amaze. What then, does amaze mean? The denotation of the verb is describes an action that fills a person with wonder, incredulity, being beyond normal experience or within the scope of belief. Something that silences or dazes us.
Time to think. If something so astonishes us as to leave us silent, then calling something “amazing” automatically disqualifies it from being amazing because we have violated the lexicographic requirement that we are dazed into silence. Ergo, modus ponens, by vocalizing a claim that cannot be valid unless silence is observed, the speaker has automatically disqualified the object or event or observation from being amazing.
But if the purpose of the expression is to create a kind of shared hysteria experienced the first time that neolithic New Guinea natives saw a plane, then “amazing” becomes less an attempt to convey meaning than it is to reveal ignorance. Often what is called “amazing” in tribal language is merely a product of a person unable to connect technological inevitabilities as quickly as innovators are. It is an admission of ignorance, the absence of technological understanding, or the eagerness to intrude in a group and become not only included, but the temporary center of attention. And this yearning, to be the center of attention, and to get your Andy Warhol entitlement of fifteen minutes of fame, requires leveraging showstopper words beyond the justification of their worth. It also betrays a mass susceptibility to hyperbolization whereby objects, products and systems are assigned powers or values far beyond their objective merits.
All of this is evident even before a serious analysis of the word “amazing” begins. Serious analyses involve dissecting the root word “amaze” Disengage the prefix “a-“ from the word “maze,” leaving the root word for later consideration. The appearance of “a-“ usually means without or lacking. For examples, the word “ament” means “without a mind.” And “alingual” means without a language. Likewise, “asexual” means “without sex” and can refer both to species without distinct sexes or to individuals who forgo the act of sex.
Continue to the root word, “maze.” One definition, the first and preferred, is a labyrinth, an intricate network of paths, many of which reach dead ends. As elements of gardens, these were very popular among the moneyed in 18th century Europe. No chateau worth its gardener would be without one. The purpose of such mazes was to test the cleverness or clairvoyance of the visitor to the maze. In simplest terms, a maze was a network designed to frustrate and entrap, to confuse and even frighten.
If taken in this sense, then the combination “a-“ (without) plus “maze” would deconstruct to mean, “the removal of a difficult, tortuous and bewildering trap.” Approximately, this would mean deliverance from frustration, or, simpler, clarification by removal of confusion. If so, the densest approximation might be deliverance, or deliverance to immediate understanding from previously invincible (or at least extricating) multiple uncertainties. After cutting away all the boxwoods from the maze, the meaning of “amazing” would need to be the opposite of its common usage, which is nearly synonymous to “awesome.”
In current usage, few words are as frequently interchanged as “amazing” and “awesome,” although their dictionary definitions are distinct. But the preservation of a word’s commonly accepted and understood meaning is important only if the purpose of conversation is intelligently informed discourse.
But intelligent discourse is best served if speakers recognize that no two words are ever exactly synonymous. This leads to a principle of identity, that every word, by virtue of its exact intersection of definition, connotation, nuance and unspoken implications is unique. If so, this relegates the thesaurus to a handbook for adding variation and avoiding repetition, often as the expense of intended meaning.
If, as often happens today, the purpose of any vocalization is merely tribal noise that facilitates inclusion in an increasingly undifferentiated group, then it does not matter that amazing deconstructs to the opposite meaning connoted by current usage.
If this line of reasoning is followed, an application of opposites is no stranger than someone being considered both “hot” and “cool.” An initial state where any body starts out both “hot” and “cool” will inevitably become “luke warm.” This is required by the second law of thermodynamics. But more bothersome is that if one follows the trend, it does not matter whether the word “black” or “white” is used. But just try convincing a commercial painter that when you wanted something “black,” you meant “white.”
For the last act, it is convenient to have saved a coup de main. And here it is. Amazing does not derive from “a-“ plus “maze,” where a maze is a human-designed nightmare created for rats to run. The root word “maze” derives instead from the word for “breast.” Amaze meant to cut off a breast.
The ancient Greek historian Herodotus was the first to use amaze in this sense, and since he lived nearly a thousand years before those decorative and puzzling European gardens, his meaning has both precedence and provenance. Herodotus echoed reports, too easily believed, that the Scythians had developed (or underdeveloped) a formidable corps of warrior women called Amazons. The Amazons had their right breasts cut off to allow an unimpeded snap of a drawn bowstring across their chests, releasing arrows on truer trajectories. If true, left-handed (or sinistral) women were excluded from combat, becoming the earliest known beneficiaries of the 4F draft rating.
Fortified by Herodotus’s claim, the first Europeans to invade the vast and dense jungles of South America encountered short, smooth skinned, long-haired natives with bows and arrows. They attributed these archers to be the legendary fierce women warriors called Amazons. The vast river system around which they lived is still called the Amazon River.
Only oncological surgeons currently amaze women. And if the word amazing is used correctly, only women can be amazed. Most don’t want to be, and certainly not by men who assure them that the operation will allow them to live longer, healthier lives. No doubt these patients are amazed at the capacity of surgeons for self-deceptions in pursuit of a favored belief. Such surgeons would fit in quite well among the cargo cultists of New Guinea, where belief in unpowered flight using rickety wood and fabric ersatz airplanes is fervently shared by all.
Strictly speaking, the only thing that can be detonatively and unconfusingly described as amazing is an autonomic surgeon with a sharp scalpel and no awareness that he has chosen to destroy an identity in order to keep the patient alive. This was a very popular rationalization for search and destroy operations during the Vietnam war; we were told that the village (or hamlet) needed to be destroyed in order to save it. And in some metaphorical sense, this idea is, denotatively and connotatively, amazing.
Before jumping onto the tribal noise bandwagon and reducing your choice to “amazing” or “awesome,” look up and try out some more appropriate alternatives, starting at the common letter “a” with “astonishing.”
Try to express what it is you think and feel as exactly as you can. If you are impressed, you can roll out “impressive,” because you are. Grow, don’t shrink. Expand, don’t compress. Downsizing your brain by reducing the workforce of your vocabulary pays few long-term returns. Pursuing this trends to its logical conclusion pushes your vocalizations back in evolution to our close cousins the chimps, who hoot and bark and shriek, but never ponder the possibility “To be or not to be,” because they never get to A, let alone B. Read More