Jewish World Review Feb. 1, 2000 /28 Shevat, 5760
An awesome idea to
make you sound better
WORDS ARE GOOD, but sometimes you have to get
rid of one, and it seems that such a time has
Occasionally in this space we point out errant
directions in which the language has veered. An
example is the "you guys" phenomenon -- the
maddening insistence on the part of some young
men and women who work in stores, restaurants,
airline terminals and the like to refer to older
customers as "you guys." "Are you guys ready to
order?" the waitress in her 20s says to the couple in
their 70s, as if they are all dorm mates at college
who have known each other all semester. Or: "You
guys should form a line over there," the airline
counter man says to his customers, as if this were
not a business, but a beach volleyball game.
Then there is "you need to" -- also heard with
increasing frequency in the business world. It is a
phrase used by representatives of a company to
order paying customers around: "You need to take
that blouse over to the other register," the
employee of the clothing store says, rather than:
"Please take that over to the other register," or
"The associate at the other register will be able to
help you." "You need to come back tomorrow if
you want that," the salesman says, instead of "I'm
sorry that we're out of that today, but if you come
back tomorrow, we'll have it in stock." In place of
appreciative courtesy for a customer's patronage,
the language of command is substituted. As if
anyone needs to give business to any particular
Today's sermonette, though, is not about the
language of discourtesy. It is about a word that has
completely lost its meaning, and that thus,
regrettably, should probably be retired.
Awesome was, until not so long ago, an extremely
potent word. Awesome meant "endowed with the
power to fill one with awe." Awesome meant "so
overwhelming in its impact, so outsized in its
capacity to stun, that it strikes people numb and
mute." Awesome was a superlative; awesome was
the ultimate. Awesome, like a weapon of mass
destruction, was a word chosen carefully, and used
with considerable discretion.
But something happened. The transformation
seems to have taken place within the last 10 years
or so. It has all been done very innocently -- this is
not a case of rudeness or bad manners. Somehow,
though, awesome has been robbed of its strength.
"Did you see `ER' last night?" "Yes -- it was
"How was the concert?" "Awesome!"
"I'm going to California for two weeks." "That's
Awesome, when we weren't looking, became a
synonym for "very nice." Now . . . we need words
that mean "very nice." The world is full of so many
things that aren't very nice, and so many ugly words
to describe those not-very-nice things, that any
new word signifying niceness should not only be
welcomed, but embraced.
Yet the de-evolution of "awesome" into a word that
denotes high niceness seems to be something of a
waste. Awesome stood alone; awesome was the
final arrow out of the quiver, the one to depend on
as a last resort. Awesome qualified as a silver bullet
of words -- awesome was something you carried
around with you, but didn't plan on using.
The atomic bomb was awesome.
The dessert you had at that new restaurant last
night may have been delicious -- may have been
very nice -- but it wasn't awesome.
The trouble with devaluing words is that there's no
going back; they can never again be used in the
manner they were intended. Once you declare that
a pair of shoes are awesome, you can't very well
say that the scope and execution of the D-Day
invasion was awesome. The sight of man taking his
first step onto the moon could properly be
described as awesome; when you say that a
music-equipment store has an awesome new set of
speakers for sale, you sort of move the word one
more step toward extinction.
And the steps are progressing rapidly; awesome is
being degraded further by the day. Instead of
meaning "very nice," it appears to be well on its
way to meaning "merely nice." Example: The other
day I heard one person tell another that he was
going out to lunch, but would be back at work by 2
"Awesome," the other person replied.
You guys need to stop
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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