Thank you for not saying “awesome.”

Usage Police

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.



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14 responses to “Thank you for not saying “awesome.”

  1. Er, do you get a pass if you use it because you’re striving to BE profoundly reverential?

    Probably not. Sigh.


  2. OK, Julie, now let’s talk about the overuse of “amazing”…
    What about “awful”…

  3. LLB

    Apparently, the new “awesome” is just “awes” (or however you want to spell it). I was on the bus going to the university campus where I work, and the millennial sitting across from me, on her cellphone, said to the conversation recipient, “It was totally awes.”

    So, don’t be crabby–the word is (d)evolving! :)

  4. Rick

    I’m not letting Garrison Keillor tell me about how to use passionate language.

  5. Don

    It’s all good …

  6. Dan

    I read your previous post, and yes watching the Simpsons season 5 would be awesome.

    • Dan, indeed. I’m trying to see if I can convince Amy to make a video with me, a passionate plea for the return of the DVDs. She can be the “bad cop,” and I think the counterpoint would be amusing…


      • ha, i did (mis)use awesome! perhaps i should roll back the clock a little to the glory days of “bitchin.” though i’m not sure how well that would fly at work.

        simpsons-wise, i put seasons 1-3 out on the shelf this morning. let’s see how long they last….

        – amy

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