Tag Archives: Burke

When did I start saying “awesome”?

23 Jun

My friend Chris, English by birth, Romanian by circumstance and love, and an editor/writer/educator (etc.) by trade, once exhorted me (no, no. That’s too strong a word. He encouraged me) to cut back on my use of gratuitous exclamation points. I had already brought this problem up about myself, so it wasn’t unasked-for advice. It was good advice. I knew in my writing (informal writing, on Facebook, for example) that I was coming across like a giddy teenager rather than a mature (ahem) person who takes writing seriously, who, in fact, teaches others to do the same. Because Chris is as serious about language as I am, I take his suggestions seriously. They are always well thought out, always correct, always meant to make me a better writer. The exclamation point, we would agree, has been overused to the point of meaninglessness. It should be added sparingly to those sentences where it truly belongs, where one is truly stating something exciting or outrageous or uncanny or amazing (or, okay, when one is sending birthday greetings).

I like the deadpan style of exclamationmarkless written speech. I like words, expressions and punctuation marks to adhere to their original meaning. No, I don’t mean that. I like American English because it is such a linguistic stew. I do not believe in keeping American English “pure” (which is hardly possible anyway, considering its origins and development). I like the way American English picks up bits of immigrant and foreign speech. I like the regional differences that reflect history. The thing is, I like English. I like it. I like the combination of smooth and guttural sounds. Like all living languages English is adaptive. It mutates. It evolves. But as it evolves it seems to be getting muddier and grubbier, rather than more clear and precise (and isn’t communication the point?). Sometimes now I come across written stuff I cannot comprehend, not because it’s difficult subject matter, but because it’s written in some sort of code known only to the writer, some combination of punctuation marks, symbols, upper and lower case letters thrown together helter-skelter. I’m not even talking about text-writing here. Extreme brevity has its place, especially when the writer is being charged by the character. But in most forums for regular written English, notes and signs and adverts and status updates and email, blogs and online news stories and essays, the writer should have enough time and leisure to make it right, to write the right thing, even to write the elegant thing.

That was a digression, I see. I set out to compare the overuse of exclamation points with the overuse of “awesome.” Both have been stripped, through sheer ubiquity, of their power. While watching a home show the other day (my guiltiest pleasure), I counted more than 20 incidents of “awesome” in half an hour. It began to grate on my ears, much like “like” or “uh.” Or, do you remember “not”? It was a trend (thankfully dead now) to make a statement with which you did not believe, and add “not” to the end. I still shudder.

What is an exclamation mark for? To show astonishment, wonderment, awe. Oh, there’s the connection (here I’m tempted to add an exclamation mark, especially since this is an actual exclamation, but I’d feel sheepish doing so). Are you really astonished that someone bought new shoes or got a “B” on a test? Really? Do you usually live in a cave with no human interaction? Okay, then. You might well be astonished by anything your fellow humans do.

F. Scott Fitzgerald advised (no, that’s not strong enough. He exhorted): “Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.”

The exclamation mark and the word “awe” are similar. They have specific purposes, to indicate some thing, or quality, or experience that is exceptional.

Dictionary.com defines “awe” as “an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like.”

The key word here is “overwhelming.” Awe is the kind of experience you have that leaves your knees weak and watery, maybe after coming face to face with a Great White Shark that decides not to have you for dinner. It’s not a “nice” feeling. It’s not benign or small or cute. A bit of décor cannot actually be awesome. Really. It’s not “grand, sublime,” or “extremely powerful.”  It’s a chair. It might be sleek or lovely or well-made or shabby or of a pleasing color. But it’s a chair. What power could it possibly have over you? Why would it inspire dread? Wait, you have a phobia of chairs? Okay. But you are an exception.

Maybe “awe” has lost its power because we have lost our power to be awed. Maybe nothing, now that our idols (political, artistic, athletic, musical, etc.) have all been knocked down to earth, now that we have instant access to information about the universe, now that we can watch a revolution happening before our eyes or a volcano spewing, now that we can easily get the “back story” of practically anyone in moments, nothing is really capable of filling us with feelings of wonder, of reverence, of dread. When I stand on the edge of a precipice, looking down, often looking out at the woods below, and I think “I could fall, I could be swallowed up into that vastness,” I remember as a student reading about the “sublime prospect,” the capital-R Romantic idea of nature’s power (think of a raging river or a tremendous storm or the view from a steep canyon), that inspired dread and reverence.


Then again, maybe it’s just another example of laziness, of growing linguistic vagueness. It’s not English’s fault. The words are there. But it’s easier to use a catch-all word than to find the more precise one.

I don’t know the answer to my question. I don’t remember when I started saying “awesome” to describe quite ordinary things. I like to think I have some tiny effect on keeping language from becoming a meaningless blob of gobbledegoop. I like to think that as I hold out I can inspire others to come over to my way of seeing, to start caring, to start a whole new generation of great English users. But it seems the other side has grabbed me—Graboid style—instead. At least I can do this: just stop already.

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