The Problem with “Awesome” (and Other Expressions of Enthusiasm)

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Photo by LInda Rae Duchaine on Flickr.

Photo by Linda Rae Duchaine on Flickr.

If you know a few tweens or teens, then you must be aware that “awesome” is the adjective of choice for expressing approval among young people. Almost anything can be awesome, including food, weather, music, teachers, pets, and even parents.  I just got a Mother’s Day card from my nine-year-old proclaiming “You are awesome MOMMY!” and I’m sure many other moms received similar accolades to their “awesomeness.”

Of course, it’s not just tweens and teens who use and overuse this adjective and its noun variant. For many of the perky, young teachers at my daughter’s charter school, “awesome” is the verbal equivalent of a gold star: an all-purpose word for praising students’ work and behavior.

When an anthropologist friend of mine described a group of her former undergraduate students as awesome on Facebook, I had to come to terms with how popular the word has become with my own generation. My friend admitted to me that this was her way of appealing to her audience, using language meaningful to them, but for many people my age (over 40, that is), the use of this word is less self-conscious.

The Evolution of “Awesome”

As was the case with “cool” decades ago, words often travel up through the generations until older and older people begin to use them.  At the same time, as young people age, they hold onto familiar vocabulary. Someday, we may have a bunch of centenarians wishing each other “an awesome 10oth birthday.”

A recent headline in the “Style” section of The Washington Post, “Haim’s Unapologetic Awesomeness,” made it clear the word has achieved some journalistic legitimacy (the alternative headline for the online version of the article is “Haim is Both Goofy and Awesome at 9:30 Club“).  In this glowing review of the band Haim’s performance at DC’s 9:30 club, Ashley Fetters described how the three Haim sisters who make up the core of the band threw their “long hair around so violently and awesomely that Robert Plant could have taken some pointers.”

In her review, Ashley Fetters lends to the word “awesome” a strong association with feminine power that made me wonder how soon we would see this sort of vocabulary in front page or “section A” articles of the Post. We may just be a year or two away from reading about “Hillary Clinton’s Unapologetic Awesomeness.”

Let’s just stop and focus on the traditional meaning of the word “awesome.”  The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as: “Extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear.”  Examples include “the awesome power of the atomic bomb” and “The awesome majesty and power of these mountains is breathtaking.”

Photo by Emergency Brake on Flickr.

Photo by Emergency Brake on Flickr.

Ashley Fetters may be in awe of the Haim sisters’ hair and stage presence, but clearly her use of the word “awesome” strips out apprehension and fear.  OED offers up “Extremely good; excellent” as a secondary definition, labeling it as “informal.”  American culture is indeed becoming more and more informal, but we are also experiencing some adjective inflation when it comes to expressing our enthusiasm.

Blogger Brian D. Buckley has declared that “awesome is dead” and proposes “28 Words to Use Instead of Awesome,” starting with “outstanding” and “astounding” and ending with “kickass” and “legendary.” There are many more we could add to the list, including many that I use regularly with a degree of self-consciousness. Sometimes I tell someone it was wonderful meeting her or him, and realize that word has lost its power, too. The same is true of many of the words on Buckley’s list.

My Issues with Enthusiasm

Since I am writing this on Mother’s Day, I want to tell you about my mom and adjectives.  When eating, she always declared food “luscious” or “scrumptious.” One time, we bought some chicken wrapped in foil, and before she opened it, she said “This looks delicious.”  It’s not that she thought the foil would be tasty; instead, this was her way of bonding through an exuberant appreciation of the moment.

My mom also used such adjectives as “fabulous” and “fantastic” on a regular basis to describe almost anything. Her gushing was funny and endearing, and I miss it now that she’s gone. Still, remembering her immoderate use of adjectives makes it harder for me to wield such expressions of enthusiasm.

Years ago when I was teaching an introductory composition and literature course for college freshmen, a couple of students complained in end-of-semester evaluations that I was not enthusiastic enough. These comments were from students who obviously had no interest in the readings. Apparently, it was my job to convey infectious enthusiasm that would win them over. We live in a culture of entertainers and cheerleaders, and my students might have wanted me to persuade them of the awesomeness of the course readings, but perhaps they also wanted me to reward them with gold stars for their own awesomeness.

Is Everything Awesome?

Photo by Miguel Vaca on Flickr.

Photo by Miguel Vaca on Flickr.

I see the American obsession with enthusiasm as a sign of collective insecurity. Maybe this is why we try so hard to document all the positive aspects of our lives–through photos, social media, etc.–and so few of the negative aspects.

I saw The Lego Movie about a month ago with my daughter, and its catchy theme song, “Everything is Awesome” often pops into my head when I see or hear the word “awesome.”

 

Everything is awesome.

Everything is cool

when you’re part of a team.

Everything is awesome

when you’re living out a dream.

As this YouTube clip demonstrates, the song first appears in a scene when the film’s insecure hero, Emmet, is trying too hard to fit in. Although it sounds like a bubble gum pop song, it is in fact a critique of the conformist desire to feel good about a consumer culture that discourages independent thought and action.

We know everything is not awesome, but we are part of a team as fellow English speakers. I hope to do my part to rein in adjective inflation—living out my dream of making words matter. And I hope you will do your part by using the word “awesome” only when you really mean it–when you are truly in awe of someone or something!

About Kelly Hand

I am a dedicated reader and writer, and the author of Au Pair Report, a novel about the politics of child care in Washington, DC.

4 responses »

  1. The overly enthusiastic use of this word also conveys a “Valley Girl” consciousness that I think hurts professional credibility. People might accept cheerleaders prancing like jumping beans at a sports event but in the workplace competent, articulate, and accurate communicators will likely generate more opportunities for success.

    Reply
  2. Christine Donnelly-Moan

    Interesting post, Kelly. I vascillate between being a language curmudgeon and feeling accepting that American English is a living language that is still evolving. Just today I learned that “curtail” came from the practice of docking the tails of “curs” or common dogs who were unlucky enough to NOT be owned by a noble.

    Reply
  3. Thanks, Kelly. It’s nice to know there are others out there that are having a hard time living this out. While I believe the Lego Movie used “awesome” satirically, its overuse grates on me! Anecdotally, it is used waaaay too much by an *English* teacher I know. It seems everything her students do is “awesome”, even if they read several grades below their level and have learned very little self-discipline. What are these children going to do in the real world when they don’t learn the truth?
    Another anecdote: I taught a small print-making class to 13-year-olds. While I demonstrated and explained that simple *designs* work better than words, the majority of them chose to scrawl “I’m Awwsome”(sic) or “[their name] is awesome”. Ugh! I’m still trying to figure it out: These are disadvantaged students, most of them in poor physical shape, not gifted, and certainly not motivated. What is this? Irony?

    Reply
  4. Thanks for the comments! Christine, I thought “curtailing” was something noble owners would be more likely to do than “regular people.” Thanks for that etymology! English IS a living, evolving language, which is all the more reason to be creative in our use of it (rather than just saying what everyone else says). As the anecdote from Happysaad (love that pun, by the way) reveals, playing the “awesome” card should not be a way of opting out of creative and intellectual challenges. Yes, we should encourage students and cheer them on, but empty praise never helps. As so many educators have noted, it’s more important to compliment students on specific actions and results (as in, “I’m proud of you for reading more at home and moving up to the next reading level.”), and “awesome” is just too vague to be helpful to students, even if it makes them feel good enough to celebrate their “awesomeness” in art class.

    Reply

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