One of my correspondents has gotten a head start on the airing of grievances at Festivus* by inveighing against the word awesome, which she hears used repeatedly and promiscuously for all manner of circumstances.

I understand. I enjoy the gift of irritability through genetic inheritance and the enhancement of working for more than thirty years with professional journalists, so I could go on a tear myself about lazy and unrepentant resort to journalese or fashion copy that makes me break out in hives.

Advertisement

But I refrain. And so will you. This post is not an invitation to catalogue our collective dislikes. You moist people can pipe down. I'm going to reflect instead on the sources of irritation.

Vogue words like awesome catch on because everyone is using them, and they irritate because everyone is using them. Adopters hear other people using awesome to indicate enthusiastic approval generally and pick it up because it gives them a sense of solidarity and group identity. Scorners resist awesome because they do not care to sound like those people.

Acceptance or rejection of group identity sharpens the reactions.

For example, sticklers will likely carp about impoverishment of vocabulary and semantic drift, awesome in the "enthusiastic approval generally" sense having little or nothing to do with awe (just as they would previously have objected to terrible for its attenuated connection to terror). For the stickler, disapproval is a badge of cultural and social superiority. For the adopter, approval is a thumb in the eye of the pretentious.

Age differences come into play as well, the lingo favored by the Young People grating on the ears of the No Longer Young People, reminding them that they are no longer au courant.

When vogue usages are part of a full-fledged slang vocabulary, this group identification becomes even more pronounced, the whole point of slang being a differentiation between the in-group which understands the language and the hopelessly out-of-it out group. The in-group is smug, and the out-group is uneasily aware that something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones.

What the word vogue should telegraph to you, however, is that all of this, like fashion, is temporary.

Awesome came in, after all, when some previous expression of enthusiastic approval fell out of favor through overuse. In time it, too, will be supplanted. We know that the Young People will drop an expression like a stone once the No Longer Young People take it up. And slang will follow one of the typical patterns: it will fade away entirely, it will run along underground for an extended time, or it will pass into standard vocabulary.

These patterns of language use are among the vicissitudes of our transitory life. Those of us who edit have a responsibility to do something to mitigate bureaucratic jargon, deflate pretension, and establish precise meanings rather than fuzzy ones in the texts we're responsible for.

But beyond our professional responsibilities the changing patterns of vocabulary and syntax that we find in the wild can offer much of interest. (I rather hope that to throw shade stays around for a while, because we did not previously have such an evocative phrase for that silent, sidelong contemptuous glance.) While there may be much to irritate us in the way people talk, we can cast an amused—or even sardonic—gaze on the ways people use language to construct individual identity or express submerged cultural values, finding them amusing, and even instructive.

That would be awesome.

*Yes, the aluminum pole is up at the house.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement