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Jewish World Review Feb. 1, 2000 /28 Shevat, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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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 arrived.

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 company.

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.

The word?


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 awesome!"

"How was the concert?" "Awesome!"

"I'm going to California for two weeks." "That's awesome!"

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 p.m.

"Awesome," the other person replied.

You guys need to stop this.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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