A Devalued Word: Awesome

Awesome has seriously lost its original value

Medal struck to commemorate Germany's 1923 inflation

A medal commemorating Germany's 1923 hyperinflation. The engraving reads: "On 1st November 1923 1 pound of bread cost 3 billion, 1 pound of meat: 36 billion, 1 glass of beer: 4 billion."

Like the German Mark currency in the days of hyperinflation during the Weimar Republic, when the Mark became devalued to the extent that one US dollar equated to 4 trillion German Marks, in English as it is spoken now the word “awesome” has been devalued as a useful word, perhaps terminally.

The word  is made up of two words, awe and some, the “some” being a qualifier, indicating, with “awe” filling the role of something like “having the effect of inspiring or engendering awe”.

“awe” has its origins at the end of the 16th century, and is derived from the Old English eġe (pronounced ˈeːje). It’s old meaning is far removed from “awesome!” as meaning “ok” or “good”, or a word you use when you can’t think of anything else to say.

Its origins give a sense of fear and reverence, or amazement, as in this sentence from Edgar Rice Burrough’s 1918 work, The Land That Time Forgot (Chapter IV)

For several minutes no one spoke; I think they must each have been as overcome by awe as was I. All about us was a flora and fauna as strange and wonderful to us as might have been those upon a distant planet had we suddenly been miraculously transported through ether to an unknown world.

That was then, this is now. It’s not easy, but these days I try to not use “awesome” too freely in speaking or writing. Examples of where it seems to have no real meaning now are:

“Hi, I’m Des.” “Awesome!”

“We’ve just been to the movies.” “Awesome!”

The fact of the matter is that this once very useful word has been effectively stripped of meaning. It can now be legitimately employed to cover a range of meanings from okay, good, fun, cool, exciting, great, through to the older meaning of inspiring fear or reverence.

So it has really lost its power to communicate anything precisely or even approximately.

What to do?

I suspect that with my resistance to the contemporary meaning-less use of “awesome” I am doing a King Canute, trying to hold back the tide of usage (for King Cnut or Canute, see the section “Ruler of the Waves” in the Wikipedia entry).

But I do know that for anyone reasonably literate in English, the unthinking use of “awesome” in the “no meaning seriously intended here” way, i.e. as no more than a convenient noise to make, can mark the user as having a limited vocabulary.

I recommend thinking for a millisecond and using a more appropriate word or phrase.

For example:

“Hello, I’m James”  “Good to meet you , James”

“We’ve just been to the movies.” “That’s nice. What did you see?”

It’s not difficult.


Handy Word of the Day: Nuance

One of the handiest words I know in English, nuance is like so many other words in English, a straight importation from the French.

Nuance: n. a subtle difference in color, meaning, tone; a shade, a gradation. From the French nuer, to show light and shade; originally from Latin nubes, a cloud

If you were old-fashioned enough to want to be guided in your English usage by the venerable H.H.Fowler, he of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, you might see the use of “nuance” as breaching his admonition to “prefer the Saxon word to the Romance”. Except that, as far as I know, there is no single “Saxon” word that does what “nuance” does.

In any case, a companion admonition of Fowler’s is “prefer the single word to the circumlocution”, by which standard, “nuance” serves better than, say, “a subtle difference in meaning”, “a gradation of color”, and so on.

Pronunciation varies from something like the French, with the first syllable as in “noo”, or in a more Anglicized way as in “new”.

How might I use the word?

One thing I hope I would not do is use a phrase like “subtle nuance”, which would be a tautology, given the “nuance” already contains the meaning of “subtle”.

Thinking about that derivation from the Latin for “cloud”, via the French for “to show light and shade” I would use it in sentences such as the following:

“I listened to both speakers explain the new arrangements and with the second speaker I thought I detected a nuance that these new arrangements would be regarded as strict rules, not just as guidelines.”

“It was supposed to be a curry, which for me would mean that it would be spicy, not bland, but there was only a nuance of some spice I could not identify.”

Another Quiet Blog

There are plenty of blogs which are like abandoned houses. No sign of life, no posts for ages. The quiet blogs.

When I started this blog as My English Lab I saw it as a place where I could pursue my interest in how the English language is used. At the time I was looking at using it to help promote a program of English language learning online. I did not pursue that business project.

Neither, as is clear from even a cursory glance, did I pursue the development of this blog.

That raises the question of what to do.

With various other blogs going, I simply don’t have the time, or at least the determination, to keep this going, at least for the foreseeable future.

Also, although I’d purchased the domain myenglishlab.com, I had not ‘turned it on’ so to speak. When I had an offer recently for the domain, I accepted it, so I no longer own the domain.

So I’m wondering which of the following options to implement:

  • delete it
  • put on ice and possibly return to it one day
  • change the name and re-purpose it

The historian in me doesn’t like the idea of deleting it. I can’t see what I would do with it at a later date, but it may have some curiosity value to someone who stumbles across it.

Now that I’ve sold the domain, myenglishlab.com, it seems a bit pointless, and perhaps just not good form, to keep using the name My English Lab.

I’ll sleep on it.

Why Automated Translations Are Risky

When someone wants a translation into English and feel they cannot afford to hire a translator, it could be tempting to use an online service like Babelfish.

That might help in getting a bit of an idea, but it is risky.

Back in the 19th century, a couple of Portuguese translators produced an English phrasebook which was so bad it was reproduced for ages as a bit of a joke, under the title “English as She is Spoke”.

Someone has now gone one better and compared some Portuguese phrases with the translations in the original phrasebook and translations from the online Babelfish service.

Here is an example:

Portuguese: Vamos mais depressa. Nunca vi pior besta. Não quer andar, nem para diante, nem para trás.
Accurate translation: Let’s go faster. I never saw a worse animal. It doesn’t want to go either forward or backward.
That phrasebook: Go us more fast never i was seen a so much bad beast; she will not nor to bring forward neither put back.
Babelfish: We go more fast. Never vi worse crossbow. It does not want to walk, nor forward, nor stops backwards.

So be careful about relying on those online services!

Real Estate and the Roaming Apostrophe

The real estate liftout in the weekend newspapers is always a treasure trove of grammatical errors.

* Located in one of the most highly sort after areas of Tallebudgera Valley, you will be drawn into the peace and privacy of this large renovated family home.

Well, maybe you will be drawn in if you do decide to be located etc, but they really mean that the large, renovated family home is located there. And we have a by no means rare appearance of “sort after? instead of “sought after?. From years of reading the Sydney Morning Herald property pages I can attest that this error is not just a Gold Coast usage.

The roaming apostrophe has a field day and although my previous post here was on the apostrophe, I just have to list some of my finds from last Saturday’s Gold Coast Bulletin (?the Bully?) real estate section.

* The Seller’s have moved on, creating a great opportunity for astute investors.

* Having it’s own direct private access to the beach, ‘Breakers North’ is situated in a much sought after location.

Hmmmm, ‘Breakers North’: that’s one of the other amusing features of the real estate pages. Not content with letting apostrophes roam around to turn up where they don’t belong (?it’s own direct private access?), evidently the people who write this stuff don’t know that when you use quotation marks like that, either in the single or double formation, you are saying in effect that the item referenced is not real or is fake, or that this is the nickname of the entity (as in the previous paragraph here, “the Bully?) or quoting a word or phrase.

There is an extensive collection of erroneous uses of quotation marks, with some quite humorous comments, at The Gallery of “Misused? Quotation Marks.

More on these lines from the Bully:

* ‘Palm Springs Residence’ is a stunning Beachfront building that oozes style and sophistication (now there’s an original expression!) …

* Offered ‘For Sale’ by extremely motivated vendor’s apartment XXX is stunning… (so it’s not really for sale – and slipped a superfluous apostrophe in there too, as well as leaving out a comma before “apartment?)

* The Magnificence of ‘Marquis on Main’ (well, let us in on the secret, what’s its real name?)

English can be such a rich and expressive language. It’s a great pity that people understand it so little they have to hang little decorations on words in this way, no doubt expecting that this will make their copy more interesting, little realising that it just makes some people either laugh or feel sorry for them. 

There has to be a market for a basic guide to using English in real estate advertisements, doesn’t there? Maybe not.

And I acknowledge I may be fighting a losing battle on the use of “sort after? in place of “sought after?. A quick google on “real estate sort after? (without the quotation marks) gave me 13.2 million results! It was clear from reading a handful of them that the authors were deadly serious.

Apostrophe Madness

At the local farmers’ market the other day I saw a sign which showed that the owner had no clue about when to use the apostrophe, or rather when not to use it.

On the sign, everything that had a plural had an apostrophe, not the way I used it in the previous paragraph, as an indication of the ‘possessive’, i.e. “farmers’ market” (market of the farmers) but in the form of a totally superfluous indication of the plural – thus, vegetable’s, cake’s, biscuit’s, jam’s.

There’s a good summary of when to use and not use the apostrophe at the Apostrophe Protection Society website. 


Pour encourager les autres

Hang on, this is my English lab isn’t it? So what am I doing with a post title in French? Well, it’s mainly because the English translation – ‘in order to encourage the others’ – doesn’t convey the meaning, or the nuance (another bit of French now Englished)of the French phrase.

By the way, nuance is a great word. It means a subtle difference in meaning, or opinion or attitude.

The original quote ‘pour encourager les autres’ is in Voltaire’s Candide, as quoted here by Alex Moffatt:

Dans ce pay-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres.
In this country it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others.

So ‘to encourage’ or ‘encourager’ is of course used ironically, to mean that you ‘make an example of’ someone in a prominent position, with the implication that they might not personally deserve such treatment, so that others who have prominent positions, and indeed people further down the line, will be put on their mettle, or put on their toes.

As the nightly tv news shows pictures of the riots in Paris and even the President’s intervention seems less than successful, I’ve been wondering whether the French Government might take the route so often taken in the past by kings and queens and now by governments, in various countries, and sacrifice some high ranking minister, police chief or other prominent person to mollify the mob and also pour encourager les autres.