Tuesday, December 27, 2011

AWESOME, SCHMAWESOME – The Slow Death of Superlatives

Awe is the most transcendent of all human emotions. That makes it hard to talk or write about. After all, words are all we have, and they are so inadequate. That doesn't keep us from trying, though—sometimes, perhaps, a little too hard.


For example, in my lifetime the word awe in all of its manifestations, as well as other terms used to describe profound emotion, have been rendered virtually powerless by their misuse and overuse. The media—especially the entertainment media (which now apparently includes journalism)—seem afraid that if they don’t out-awe the competition, they just won’t get noticed.

Awe, awful and awesome...roll off people’s tongues like so many watermelon seeds at a July picnic.

And it’s rubbed off on everyone; just listen to how people talk. Awe, awful and awesome, not to mention ambitious words like disaster, horrific, unbelievable, extreme or mega-fill-in-the-blank, roll off people’s tongues like so many watermelon seeds at a July picnic.

My children’s generation managed to attach awesome to everything from Nikes to Napster, rendering that word, in particular, powerless to describe much of anything that’s truly important. Come on now, if everything’s awesome, then nothing is.

So how do we describe something that really is rare and awesome—or unspeakably bad—when the words we once reserved for such occasions have gotten so threadbare?

I suppose we could try to restore those words to their long-lost potency. Under threat of arrest, we’d reserve them for describing—or should I say trying to describe—only things that really matter. Like an experience (good or bad) we can never fully understand, and which truly humbles us. Short of that, very, very little of what most of us are or do or see qualifies as either "awful" or "awesome."

Wouldn’t the truest, most articulate expression of an emotion this powerful be utter speechlessness?

The other solution, one that makes more sense to me, would be to just accept the fact that some words, especially those derived from awe, have simply become too frivolous to be used or believed any more. After all, wouldn’t the truest, most articulate expression of an emotion this powerful be utter speechlessness?

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed." ~ ALBERT EINSTEIN


spldbch said...

I think "love" is another word that has been used so frequently as to render it impotent. When we say we love someone's outfit or we love a new song or we just love our favorite television show, how much does it mean when we tell another person we love them? Still, that doesn't stop me from doing it. If we don't have an adequate word or phrase to convey exactly what we want to express then we have no choice but to use the best words we have. Of course, we can always offer a disclaimer: "There really are no words to express how I feel (or what I think, etc.), but I am going to try..."

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hi spldbch - I agree about "love" being used to death. Clearly we could opt for "like," saving "love" for extraordinary occasions.
What is it that causes us to use -- with "love" or any of the examples I cite in this post -- words just a step or two above the level of intensity the situation merits? How is this influenced by popular culture and the media? Any linguists out there?

Post a Comment

Thanks for visiting One Man's Wonder! I'd love to hear your comments on this post or my site in general.
And please stay in touch by clicking on "Subscribe" below.