Yesterday in my chat, a reader sent in a great question that inadvertently clarified some things I’ve been thinking about lately. “Is it just me, or is the word ‘awesome’ overused?” this person wrote. “When something is described as ‘awesome’ these days, it probably isn’t awesome. Why do you think this word has become so popular?”
The easy answer is that slang is cyclical. But as I wrote yesterday in a quick response, the rise of “awesome” seems to me to be related to something else: “I think both enthusiasm and outrage are presently overused as modes of discourse. When we spend all of our time in these two states of reaction, the world gets kind of flattened out. We can’t tell the difference between a well-intentioned faux pas and malign intent, or between a cinematic masterpiece and something that just made us feel good for the moment (much less between a supposedly definitive viral takedown and an article or a speech that actually permanently shifts the larger discourse).” We’re declaring things “awesome” or “the worst” to convince ourselves that we’re feeling more, when actually, we’re feeling less.
In 2011, Robert Lane Greene traced the evolution of “awesome” in a piece for Intelligent Life magazine. What started out as a word to describe the overwhelming feeling of an encounter with the divine, used in place of “terrible” as that word came to mean “bad” rather than “terrifying,” became an all-purpose descriptor of everyday goodness in part thanks to “The Official Preppy Handbook.”
That’s already quite an etymological demotion. But the way “awesome” and various other adjectives connoting that something is either the absolute best or the utter worst are used today is even more unnerving. Rather than helping us understand the difference between something truly awe-inspiring and something momentarily pleasurable, or between a true travesty and a social misstep, our tendency toward extremes is blurring these gradations and denying us the chance to feel a wider range of emotions.
Part of what’s so insightful about the song “Everything Is Awesome” from “The Lego Movie,” released last year, is that it makes the argument that branding things “awesome” is actually a method of social control:
By telling his citizens that all sorts of mundane things are actually ecstatic experiences, President Business (Will Ferrell) — who is secretly a dictator — has convinced his subjects not to seek out anything new, much less contemplate shaking up their entire way of life.
Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) has never heard anything but the perpetual chart-topper “Everything Is Awesome,” so of course he thinks it’s the best track ever. He has been told that the more expensive his coffee is, the better it is, and his taste buds respond accordingly. His neighbors know that they’re supposed to feel transported by rooting for their local sports team, and so entire tram cars shout “Goooo sports team!” in unison. The citizens don’t have to know who plays for the team, or even what sport the athletes play, or whether they’re any good at it; just the act of affirming something is enough for them to get a jolt of communal pleasure.
Declaring something “awesome” or “the worst” is a way of foreclosing conversation (or often action) rather than having it. These are meant to be definitive statements that shut down any debate about whether the thing in question is actually all that great or truly a devastating travesty. Words like these prevent inquiry rather than facilitating it; they’re descriptors for people who love or hate something, but without the careful, observant intensity that would allow them to actually mount a defense of their position.
In a very funny recent New Yorker piece, two correspondents struggle to set up a time to get together. In discussing the complicated schedules that are making this difficult, they compete to see who can blame themselves more abjectly. “I am literally Operation Rolling Thunder mixed with the NFL’s policy on domestic violence” says one. “Stop it. You’re fine. I, on the other hand, am seriously Vermont’s heroin epidemic multiplied by Bill Cosby,” responds the other.
The joke isn’t just their hyperbole, but the fact that the hyperbole doesn’t lend any urgency to the situation. If not getting together was truly a calamity of these proportions, you would think the correspondents would move to fix a date. But their rhetorical posturing has become more fun than the drinks themselves could ever be. When they ultimately do find a time to meet, you wonder what they’re going to beat themselves up about when they get there.
We live in neither the worst of times nor the awesomest. That’s just fine, and probably a lot more interesting than it would be to live in a constant state of unchanging amazement.