THE RISE OF "AWESOME"

Once it had to do with awe. Now it just means "great". How did "awesome" conquer the world? Robert Lane Greene explains (and reminisces)

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2011

In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was awesome. 

If this sounds like an irreverent approach to the famous first lines of the gospel of John, I can assure you it’s not. “The word was God,” according to the original. But repeatedly in the Bible, God is “awesome”. Nehemiah, Deuteronomy and the Psalms refer to “the great and awesome God”, “mighty and awesome”, and ask worshippers to praise his “great and awesome name”. How did this once-awe-inspiring word become a nearly meaningless bit of verbiage referring to anything even mildly good?

The first time “awesome” appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1598, it was a description for someone feeling awe, rather than someone inspiring it. But it wasn’t too long before the now-traditional meaning made its first recorded appearance: “A sight of his cross”, wrote a Scottish Presbyterian sermoniser in 1664, “is more awsom than the weight of it.”

The King James Bible, published in 1611, does not use “awesome”: God is “terrible” in the passages above. This makes sense, since as Proverbs tells us, “fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom,” and in those days “terrible” still had a strong connection to “terror”. But over the centuries, “terrible” picked up its now-common meaning, first of “shockingly bad”, and by the early 20th century, just plain “bad”. In modern translations of the Bible, it wouldn’t do to have God described that way. So “awesome” stepped in.

But around the same time, a different change was happening to “awesome”. It was defined in 1980 in the “Official Preppy Handbook”, a bestselling semi-satirical look at well-heeled American youth: “Awesome: terrific, great.” It had a bit of California surfer-dude and Valley Girl, too. By 1982, the Guardian was mocking the West Coast with “It’s so awesome, I mean, fer shurr, toadly, toe-dully!” 

Soon the word needed no definition. “Awesome” became the default descriptor for anything good. In 1982, I was seven and I swallowed it whole. It stayed with me for decades. In 2005, I remember meeting a girl when I had just seen “Batman Begins”, the moody psychological picture that reinvigorated a tired franchise. “It’s awesome,” I told her. “Awesome. Just awesome.” She wondered, she later said, what kind of journalist had just one adjective in his vocabulary. Somehow, she married me all the same.

“Awesome” has been with my generation in America so long that it now has a whiff of retro. There is a Tumblr blog entitled “My Parents Were Awesome”, which features pictures, mostly from the 1960s and 1970s, of the writers’ parents looking young and cool. It generated a spin-off book that included nostalgic essays by some of the children. And “awesome” caught on not only with my age group, but with anyone young enough to be considered young or youngish when “awesome” became awesome. Barack Obama, a college student in Los Angeles when the “Official Preppy Handbook” came out, turned it into a joke on the campaign trail in 2008. When asked what was his biggest weakness, he would say: “It’s possible I’m a little too awesome.” 

Britons have a love-hate relationship with linguistic innovations from America. In 2008 a Daily Telegraph correspondent, Toby Harnden, devoted a blog post to the “Top 10 Most Annoying Americanisms”, something that would scarcely occur to an American columnist to do with Britishisms. But he didn’t include “awesome”. And well he might not, because it now looms as large in Britain as it once did in America. It has even grabbed a chunk of market share from the great British word for “great”—“brilliant”. The Guardian, the paper that mocked “awesome” in 1982, had used it in 6,457 articles by July 2011, with one or two being added each day. It is no longer just God or jaw-dropping natural wonders: a catch by a cricketer, a mashed-potato dish and savings in a council budget have all gone down as “awesome”. 

In June the Guardian asked writers to name worn-out phrases, and Sampurna Chattarji chose “awesome”, noting that it had made it to India (“with an American accent”), while scorning it as meaningless. She’s right, but words are shifting—together, as part of a system—all the time. “Terrible” begins to mean “bad”, so “awesome” must replace “terrible”. Then “awesome” becomes “excellent”, so “awe-inspiring” has to fill the space left behind. Then teenagers hear their parents saying “awesome”, and it becomes the last thing they want to say. So new words are roped in: “sick” meaning “great” is big in America, while in Britain “safe” shows signs of becoming the new “awesome”. If you have kids and want them to stop using either of these words, just adopt it yourself.   

Robert Lane Greene is Europe business and finance correspondent for The Economist and author of "You Are What You Speak".  Here he explains why it's okay to split an infinitive.

Image Lara604 (via Flickr)