Tag Archives: fearful

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.