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Webster’s defines the word awe as 1. Dread, Terror 2. the power to inspire dread 3a: profound and reverent fear inspired by a deity b: abashed fear inspired by authority or power c: fearful veneration inspired by something sacred or mysterious. The word awesome is defined as inspiring awe.

Being as old as I am and coming of age during the social revolution of the 1960’s, I am unable to pinpoint exactly when we Americans were driven over the adjective cliff, arriving at the bottom of the void to find that the only useful descriptors left to us were awesome, amazing, incredible, and great. I cannot remember exactly who was responsible, but I have a vague feeling that perhaps it was the California surf culture and/or unofficial spokespersons for the drug culture of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Being a member of the latter, I will place the blame on the former. All I can be sure about is that those SoCal (I’m saying) kids have grown up, obtained jobs, some in the advertising industry, and have never bothered to find appropriate adjectives to describe the nouns in their sentences.

These three adjectives (I am giving great a pass, mostly because of Frosted Flakes) no longer have any meaning whatsoever. They have become the words of choice to describe everything, and as such have lost all meaning. All the power that they once possessed has been lost. Awesome guitar, man! Dude, those shoes are awesome! How was your hamburger, hot dog, pork tenderloin, movie, girlfriend, vacation, etc. Awesome! If everything can be described as awesome, amazing, or incredible, then nothing is. Imprecision abounds. Hyperbole has gone mad. Exaggeration has moved beyond the pale.

Awesome is a fine word when used properly. Hurricanes, F5 tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and if you believe in a deity, god, can take that heretofore fine adjective. Inspiring dread; terror. My hamburger does not fill me with dread, and your new t-shirt does not inspire terror. They are not awesome, or for that matter, amazing or incredible. There is a multitude of fine adjectives to attach to mundane nouns: wonderful; fantastic; tasty; delicious; sublime; superb; inspiring; excellent; marvelous; unique; monumental; magnificent; unforgettable; remarkable; impeccable, and maybe hundreds of others. There are much more accurate adjectives with which we can communicate our impressions. Why don’t we use them? Why is every product on television characterized as AMAZING? I am not amazed by a pan that keeps a meatloaf from drying out. If alien beings landed in Washington and vaporized the lobbyists for the NRA, that would qualify. It would be something considered beyond extraordinary, something few, if any, had ever seen before. I would be amazed, as would we all, even the gun manufacturers. But not a meatloaf pan.

These once proud adjectives have been reduced to synonyms for the word great. They are the go-to descriptors of our casual, boring, pop culture lexicon. Maybe we have too many words. Around 800,000, last I looked. The French have around 100,000. They pride themselves on using, by necessity, the precise word to fit the occasion. We are either too lazy, too uneducated, or too illiterate to care. Maybe we don’t like options. Too many adjectives! I can’t decide! There is a reason that Roseanne was the most popular television comedy for nine consecutive years.

We lovers of the language fight on. To what end, I have no idea. I don’t want to eat the same four meals over and over, and I don’t want to use the same four adjectives to describe everything that I consider excellent. There is pleasure to be had in the variety of food, and that same pleasure in variety is waiting to be had in language, if we will just try to cook up something new to say. It is patently hopeless I know, but I will continue to rail against those who say, “these french fries fill me with a feeling of terror and dread.”


  1. 6-18-2012

    Fighting the good fight with humor and language. Well done, my friend. This post is really awes…
    uh, excellent.

  2. 7-4-2012

    As always, you nailed it. The coarsening of America starts with our language, and moves through clothing, music, attitude and, worst of all, our communication with each other. Keep fighting, y’all!

  3. 8-7-2012

    BRILLIANT! (I borrowed that from my English husband’s family, but it fits).

  4. 7-13-2013

    Ha! Either you’re using an old copy of the dictionary, or you just pick and choose the definitions with which you agree … My Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the adjective awesome as: 1: expressive of awe (awesome tribute); 2 a: inspiring awe (awesome task); 2 b: terrific, extraordinary (had an awesome time). It also lists several synonyms, including: amazing, astonishing, astounding, marvelous,awful, eye-opening, fabulous, miraculous, wonderful, etc, etc, etc.

    Either way, I think you are AWESOME, Richard!!!

    • Richard

      Awesome argument, awesomely argued, Lindsay. Thanks. It is difficult to rant against a colleague who is Canadian, caustic, and the bearer of a newly-minted Master’s degree (all good things), but here goes: Language is, and should be, elastic. However, I prefer evolution to devolution. Cleverness to laziness. Conversely, and unfortunately for my opinions and hopes, the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that systems decay, and language is a system, so I (a living example of a decaying system) should just give up and relax, yes? I can’t. I have more than four colors on my adjective palette, and all of those available colors make language rich and vibrant. To be precise, everything cannot be awesome. Precision separates us from the troglodytes, morlocks, and crackers who are unable to plumb the depths of their own language to fill in the blank with an appropriate word.
      At 65, I have wearied of the lowest common denominator of American popular culture being the accepted zeitgeist. Until a law is mandated to only allow primary colors, I will continue to complain.
      As a side note, when we first met, my impression of you was one of the second definition (the power to inspire dread) of that overused adjective. After a year, my impression has changed to the definition in your dictionary that means “fabulous.”