I don’t mean to be crabby, and I’m not writing on behalf of the usage police, but it’s impossible to ignore the overuse of certain words. Every day I hear someone say “That’s awesome!” and every day I wonder why it’s so popular. A skit I heard October 24, 2009 on A Prairie Home Companion reminded me I’m not the only one to notice such things.
GK: …..brought to you by the Professional Organization of English Majors. Today, let’s review what we learned last week about word usage, choosing the appropriate words for the situation. Today, let’s talk about cool and awesome. And totally awesome. Jared, would you care for a mango smoothie?
TR (TEEN): Whatever.
GK: Choose between cool and awesome.
TR (TEEN): Awesome.
GK: A mango smoothie is only awesome to someone who’s been stranded in the Antarctic for a year, Jared.
TR (TEEN): Cool.
GK: Correct. Katelyn, a trip to the Grand Canyon.
SS (TEEN): Cool.
GK: No, the Grand Canyon is awesome, Katelyn. It has always been awesome and it continues to be awesome. There are several hundred awesome places in America and the Grand Canyon is one of them. Okay?
SS (TEEN): Okay. No problem.
The Oxford English Dictionary:
Definition 1. Full of awe, profoundly reverential. (First appearance 1598.) Definition 2. Inspiring awe; appalling, dreadful, weird. (First appearance 1671.) Definition 3b. In trivial use, as an enthusiastic term of commendation: marvellous, great; stunning, mind-boggling. slang. (First appearance 1980.)
Browsing the “English language — Usage — Dictionaries” section of the library, I picked up Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage, by Mark Davidson. Mr. Davidson credits exaggerated claims from advertising and show business for the devaluation of some of our most powerful words, e.g. amazing, fabulous, fantastic, wonderful, thrilling, awesome. Most of these words lost their meaning through overuse and abuse in ad claims. But awesome’s descent into near-meaninglessness can be traced to show business. According to Roger Ebert, Sean Penn’s character Jeff Spicoli immortalized the word in the film Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).
In 1984, only two years after Fast Times’ debut, awesome appeared on the annual “List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness,” compiled by the “Unicorn Hunters” of Lake Superior State University. They gave awesome a one-year moratorium “during which it is to be rehabilitated until it means ‘fear mingled with admiration or reverence; a feeling produced by something majestic.'” In 2007, awesome appeared on their list again. This time they ruled there was no hope for rehabilitation. Awesome was banned for good.