We can reclaim land from the ocean and water from the sewers. We can reclaim wood and make beautiful new countertops. But what about language? Can we reclaim words? My theory on this is, pessimistically, no.
Maybe you want to, just for the sake of argument, disagree with me. Okay, good. I happen to have a word I’m offering up for reclamation: awesome. Seriously. Let’s put it to the work it was intended for.
Here’s a little etymological history for you: It goes way back to the Greek syllable(*agh-) for “pain,” “fright” and/or “grief.” From that we get our word “awe.” Currently “awe” suggests “dread mixed with veneration,” mainly because that’s how the Bible describes our mortal reactions to God. Now there’s something important to note here, which is that “awe” does not just mean “amazement”; to be filled with awe is to be humbled by a healthy dose of fear. Awe transcends the ego. “Awesome” entered the written word world in 1598, and a great example of it in its original linguistic context is this quotation by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:
There was something awesome in the thought of the solitary mortal standing by the open window and summoning in from the gloom outside the spirits of the nether world.
Awesome is clearly right at home among such concepts as gloom, summoning, and spirits of the nether world. That’s where awesome belongs. But I am as guilty as you of awesome-abuse. It’s one of those convenient enthusiastic responses: “Dude, that’s awesome.” A quick Google search suggests that the following things, in someone’s estimation, are in fact awesome:
- topless robots
- time travel
- teaching English in Japan
- Tony Danza
- Jessica Alba’s pregnancy
- being black
With exception of perhaps time travel*, and oh, okay, Tony Danza**, can we fairly ascribe a sense of “dread and veneration” to any of the things on the list? Maybe we should blame Jeff Spicoli, but chances are most of the things you or I attribute awesome-ness to are in fact just kind of cool, like my vegetable peeler in the shape of a tropical bird, or the fact that I can easily renew my Vancouver Public Library books online.
George Orwell says, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” and I must agree. “Awesome” used to describe God, but now, according to Merriam Webster, it’s a synonym for “terrific.” Terrific? Come on, can you think of a lame-er positive adjective? Awesome deserves better than that.
Let’s do it together. Next time you traverse the Sahara, or encounter an anaconda, or find yourself on a rock climb that challenges all previously-held assumptions about your mental and physical capability, you’re going to need a word for it. So then, and only then, say it like you mean it: Dude, it was awesome.
*Have you not been watching Lost?
** That one’s for you, Kerry.