Synonymous with Michael Phelps? Before you react “absolutely,” read the section on “absolutely.” Ditto “definitely.” This one word response to a question by a sports commentator or music show emcee has become the unacknowledged poster child word of the information age, embodying all the yearnings of broadcast moguls. It is short, uttered enthusiastically and is commonly taken by the audience as representing a fulfillment of their deepest expectations. Check it out.
Awesome is here, and there, and everywhere you look. The word for that condition is ubiquitous. Awesome has achieved that rare quality of being both insuperable in experience and available everywhere by its simple virtue of spontaneous declaration and bilateral agreement. The word itself is current and user-friendly.
Once awesome was a liturgical word used cautiously along with a mixture of other words, like ineffable or transcendent, not interchangeably but to add texture and nuance to expression. In those days, awesome was weighed in consideration before use. Its meaning, according to a source as current and universally available as Google dictionary, is “very impressive and often frightening.”
Perhaps when Michael Phelps speaks of his own performances in myriad swimming events, this is what he means. But as he also deems as awesome certain pop music tracks by Eminem, application of the word “awesome” seems less likely. Or not. But if not, it is because a great deal of thought and cleverness has been done by Michael Phelps before declaring for both his world record in the one hundred meter butterfly and what might in a previous age been a vinyl record the same status as conferred by the definition.
Phelps’s use of awesome would be with an intention to provoke the audience to deeper levels of connection and meaning. It is not clear that the storied icon of swimming has devoted this much cogitation to his choice of the word. It is no more clear than when other sports or entertainment heroes give voice to the word that they have considered and discarded other choices like tremendous, fantastic, indescribable (sometimes connoted by awesome), ineffable, superb, magnificent, splendid, or any of a number of words less familiar, equally short, but certainly more distinguishing.
In fairness the pandemic spread in the use of awesome is simply our postmodern contribution to similar expostulations from former era, for example “peachy keen.” The phenomenon of grabbing a word from a familiar use and conferring upon it by diversion to new purposes (a kind of linguistic highjacking), there is by growing agreement – the same kind that arrayed the emperor in his wonderful clothes – a snobbish conspiracy that anyone who is anyone nowadays digs what we mean when we say “awesome.” But caution needs to be applied to a progression of radical conscription where use creates lexicographic dissonance.
For example, while “cool” has been around longer than “awesome,” it is generally contrasted to awesome by its understatement. “Cool” has be in and out of fashion, and is currently in, but if you check with next year’s list of what’s hot and not, may be out again. Yet in a great thermodynamic conundrum, an individual (usually but not in this PC age exclusively of the opposite sex) may simultaneously be “cool” and “hot.”
Here’s the rub, of hands together to produce heat: By their definitions “cool” and “hot” are near opposites. There is no system of logic, mathematical or symbolic, that allows identities to be opposites without nullifying the proof and destroying the meaning. And attempting to rescue the situation with a groan and, “Well, you know everybody understand what is means,” brings us back to that wonderful riposte by Scarlet Johanssen is the film Lost in Translation.”
Here’s how it plays out. Enlisting a barrage of babble, a film maker presses Johanssen with a rhetorical, “You know what I mean?” and she answers, quite honestly, unblinkingly and refreshingly, “No, I don’t. I have no idea what you’re saying.”
If the intention of words is to provide specific and precise relationships to meanings, even if it is a rather long list of meanings, then if communication is the attempt to embed either reasoning or emotion in sound, then – contrary to the convention of the annual reconsideration of meanings according to usage that was first popularized by the Webster’s Third International Dictionary in 1960 – the range of possible meanings needs to be constrained by the definitions. But the problem with the use of “awesome” is that it destroys by overuse the power of a word that once had a rather great lifting power.
Mindless, reflexive repetition by Pavolovian stimuli not only slakes the awe from awesome, but leaves a dead sound that has become tiresome, shopworn, threadbare and clichéd. In a media like television that abhors dead air, the air is pre-deadened whenever the word “awesome” is spoken. It died not only of overuse but by predictability.
It is the sound of one hand clapping. It is all noise and no impact. And what then, is preferable? What would keep me from leaving the televison set to fetch a beer during the post-race interview? If after the anchor swimmer has ripped his suit and is asked, “So how do you feel about the new world record?” he had enough wit to quip, “The other guys gave me a great lead. I’m just glad I could keep the competition behind me.”
Get it? Behind me, as in behind. Ripped suit.
The point: you can be simple and understood, sincere and humble, and still witty in subtext, but not if all you can think when the mike is jammed under your nose is, “It was awesome.”
It would be more emotionally honest and no less meaningful to simply emit a barbaric yawp. This poetic license is extended by no lesser a bard than Walk Whitman. When there is no word that embraces the momentary feelings, don’t try to find one. It simply diminishes the emotion. Sometimes a tear, a sniffle and a smile is more eloquent, spontaneous and – yes – meaningful, than any spoken word.
Awesome has been devalued by overuse to less than zero. It cannot be resurrected or reinstated by capitalization or exclamation marks ad infinitum. No longer a word of meaning, it has been degraded to a vocal reflex, a conversational knee-jerk Read More