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Written on August 21, 2010, and categorized as Language.
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I love the English language. It is a multi-faceted jewel of untold value.

English is constantly shifting, changing and adapting, throwing new light and colour, and we English, the inhabitants of England, the progenitors of the second most spoken language on the planet (after Mandarin, vying for second place with Spanish) are particularly susceptible to the impact of these changes. We confidently invent and add to our language as we ever did, but the flow is not one way, and long since ceased to be so. Stuck on this small island, desperately trading with any nation which will have us, we are influenced by other native English speakers all around the the world.

There are three lands whence English has returned to our shores, and forever changed this native source code. We cheerfully import from Australia, whose casually colourful terms and phrases enter via envy of sunshine and sporting prowess; from India, whose superior grammar, vocabulary and cultural richness flex ancient muscles in the 21st century; and of course, from the military, economic and cultural powerhouse which is the United States of America.

Like invasive species, certain words and phrases take root, spread, supplant our old ones and threaten to wipe them out, but it is more than pointless to complain about this evolution, or devolution of English, as Swift once did, railing against the bastardisation of of his beloved English like Canute on the beach:

“These Gentlemen, although they could not be insensible how much our Language was already overstocked with Monosyllables; yet, to save Time and Pains, introduced that barbarous Custom of abbreviating Words, to fit them to the Measure of their Verses; and this they have frequently done, so very injudiciously, as to form such harsh unharmonious Sounds, that none but a Northern Ear could endure… They have joined the most obdurate Consonants without one intervening Vowel, only to shorten a Syllable … What does Your Lordship think of the Words, Drudg’d, Disturb’d, Rebuk’t, Fledg’d, and a thousand others, every where to be met in Prose as well as Verse? Where, by leaving out a Vowel to save a Syllable, we form so jarring a Sound, and so difficult to utter, that I have often wondred how it could ever obtain.”

Changes to the words we speak and read, new usages, additions of completely new words and phrases are happening faster than ever, thanks to a century of mass media – books, magazines, films, television, popular music, and now of course, the ubiquitous internet, which knows no boundaries and which flows into all spaces, however intimate, however personal.

The home of the world’s first truly global culture is demolishing national differences between versions of the language, removing meaning, shifting it elsewhere entirely. Another global culture, football, recently provided us with the word vuvuzela via the soundtrack to the FIFA World Cup, but the internet has provided more pervasive alterations to the fabric of language, being not only a vector but also the source of many changes.

The new constructions are usually no more descriptive and often less efficient. The word ‘meeting’ is used less and less; ‘meetup’ has replaced it, for some reason. We used to simply ‘meet up’ with someone, or ‘attend a meeting’, but now we must ‘go to a meetup’ – five words replacing two or three, with the confusion of ‘up’ introduced. Why not just meet?

Just to increase complexity, functions swap around too, and seemingly without pattern – ‘tweetup’, turns a verb into a noun, while ‘unfriend’, turns a noun into a verb.

I am not Swift. I am an enthusiastic user, an inventor of words. I embrace the changes, observing, adopting and enjoying. I love my friends in other countries, and I relish their nuances.

There is just one word which frustrates, grates and irritates me, a word which has been devalued to the point of meaninglessness and which has crushingly invaded my world like no other.

Awesome.

Awesome has come to mean everything but awesome.

Awesome as it used, just means, good. Where people might once have described everything as ‘cool’, now everything is awesome. It is hyperbole without irony, even when it is used ironically.

You got it to work? Awesome

There is a blog called 1000 Awesome things which has produced a book called “The Book of Awesome”. The marketers of this book should be prosecuted for false representation of their product.

It’s awesome that the other side of the pillow is cool. No it isn’t, it’s just because you didn’t put your head on that side yet.

Bacon for breakfast is awesome. Not if you’re a vegetarian, Jewish, or Muslim.

It’s awesome that the train door opened right in front of me. Why, because you’re too lazy to move?

Awesome has become a throwaway term for anything that isn’t shit.

The reason for this is clear to see. Our lives have become brutalised and robbed of value to the extent where very small, slightly sentimental things are accorded quasi-religious significance.

Andy Warhol would understand this – he saw it coming.

Andy Warhol. Awesome. No, just clever, insightful, and a pioneer.

How was your day? Awesome. Oh right. Nothing bad happened, then.

WHY CAN’T PEOPLE FIND BETTER WORDS? It goes beyond laziness. Imagine if we ceased using colour descriptors – no more red, yellow, orange, blue, green, purple, just saying that something has a colour but never defining what that colour is. Imagine if we never described food as having any particular taste, but just said it was tasty. What was the food like? Tasty. It tells us nothing except that it met personal preferences. We don’t know if the food was sweet or sour, Italian or Japanese. These are equivalents, which communicate so little as to be totally useless.

There is a story I once heard about the making of The Greatest Story Ever Told, a bloated expensive Hollywood failure of a film about the life of Christ.

Looking up at Jesus on the cross, in time-honoured cowboy Western style, actor John Wayne, playing a Roman centurion, speaks the famous line, “Surely this was the son of God.”

Director George Stevens shouts, “Cut!” then leans in and says to John, “John, just try that again, this time with more awe.”

“Action!” The cameras roll. In the blazing Arizona sun, Wayne squints up at the cross, and drawls the line:

“Aw, surely this man was the Son of God….”

This wonderfully funny gaffe is much more than an actor’s mistake – it epitomises the dearth of understanding which undermines our notion of what is truly impressive.

Now I could react to this in several ways. One way would be to explain to anyone who will listen that awesome is a non-word and please could they find a better descriptor. I have tried this sometimes, when I can be bothered, and frankly, I’m pissing in the wind. I come across like an obsessive pedant, which may be the case, but it is not a good personal image.

Another would be try to re-connect the word with its root – ‘awe’ – meaning wonder, veneration – an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, and this seems a more rewarding route to take.

To reclaim the power and stature of Awesome opens up possibilities. It could be an exciting personal project which has the potential to reinvigorate a word which I currently avoid like the black death, and restore it to personal usage. The search for awesome provides a conceptual thread for art, it could even become a quest, taking me to places geographical which I have yet to witness, and even into the realms of spiritual experience. I might even write a book about it.

Now that would be awesome.

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This thing has 2 Comments

  1. lasirena
    Posted 30 August, 2010 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    Ah… the descent of awesome. It is used almost 100% sarcastically by me these days. “Awesome grades, babe” to my son regarding a poor report card or “awesome driving” regarding the idiot who cuts me off and then drives slow because they're texting. Awesome use of vocabulary on my part.

    I think I had better revolve.

  2. Posted 30 August, 2010 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    Cool.

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