How awesome is awesome?

The answer, of course, depends on whether you interpret the question to be enquiring or rhetorical. More to the point, it depends on what you mean by awesome, and here we run into a spot of semantic sludge. Speaking to a friend on the phone last night, I used the word and found myself appending a parenthetical clarification: that I meant awe-inspiring. Because to many people in many contexts — especially young people in any context — the word awesome means pretty good, great, cool, excellent, fine, exciting, quite interesting, not terrible, etc. It is often preceded by totally, or followed by dude, or both; and new variations arise constantly.

My hiccups have stopped. That is so awesome!!1!
Is that a new pencil? It’s awesome, dude.
There’s, like, a free David Hasselhoff toaster with every new kitchen. That’s, like, totally awesome. It is teh awesomest.

This sense of awesome dates to 1961 and became popular a couple of decades later (more on that below). The original meaning of awesome, dating to around 1600, is “filled with awe, profoundly reverential”; by the end of that century it had come to mean “awe-inspiring”. The root word awe, meaning terror, dread, or wonder, is much older. There are situations where awesome is still implicitly and normally understood in this earlier sense, such as when used in religious commentary, or deployed by, say, a physicist when describing the power of the sun. But the weakened sense of the word has crowded the field.

The first time I remember using awesome was on a day in the bog in my early teens. We (assorted family members) were loading a truck with bags full of turf that was finally dry and ready to store. Helping us were two men I didn’t know, brothers in their late thirties or so. I was hefting bags from one pile to another nearer the truck, and from this vantage the men seemed immensely strong, even when I allowed for the physical disparity between the average adult and my non-Hulk-like teenaged self. One brother stood in the back of the truck while the other tossed bags of turf up to him with one hand — almost flicking them, as if they were no heavier than juggling bags. I turned to my father and said, “That’s awesome.” He laughed and agreed.

Occasionally I use awesome in its weakened, broad sense, and I see and hear this usage everywhere. Some people use it with irresistible enthusiasm. I would guess that its ubiquity has almost attained a level of colloquial penetration that cool did before it; at the risk of sounding facetious, its current popularity is awesome. Our generation is either in a state of near-perpetual awe, or in a state of a complete lack of awe. What’s more probable, and less tongue-in-cheek, is that the word’s meaning has simply devalued. And I mean no value judgement. It is arguably as pointless to bemoan a shift in lexical meaning as it is to gripe at the rising tide for turning your sandcastle into an amorphous lump.

Synchiropus splendidus by Luc Viatour s

[Image of Synchiropus splendidus by Luc Viatour. Because it is awesome, like this cat.]

A few examples, selected more or less at random from the British National Corpus, shows a wide range of usage, with landscapes, battles, sporting feats, and natural forces and sights appearing often:

Understanding of the atomic nucleus was progressing rapidly and awareness was dawning of the awesome energies latent within.
You’re an awesome dancer.
The SNES version of Star Wars looks being one of the most awesome treats of ’93.
Certainly, multimedia systems can perform spectacular, even awesome feats.
[T]he famous charge of the Frankish knights with levelled lances was still an awesome and terrible thing to the lightly-armed Saracens
His batting could be awesome in its power.
High Elf mages are mighty spell casters whose fiery blasts and awesome energies have won many a battle.

The Urban Dictionary has, at the time of writing, 73 user-written definitions of awesome, the vast majority of which attribute to it the same generically positive meaning as cool, with an optional added oomph of awesomeness. Roughly seven entries include the sense of awe or allude to the traditional definition. The Urban Dictionary is a contemporary slang dictionary, so this ratio is unsurprising. Some of the entries are quite imaginative; others seem decidedly weary.

Film critic Roger Ebert tells us that the American teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) features Sean Penn immortalising the word awesome. I have not seen this film; for me it was Bill and Ted who popularised the slang usage. I don’t know when this happened relative to my awesome day in the bog, so I can’t say how established the word’s different connotations were at the time, but I have always been aware of using it in two distinct ways. These spheres of meaning overlap but are usefully distinguished — at least if we want to preserve the traditional meaning. (The Oxford English Dictionary includes a third meaning of awesome, from the late-sixteenth century: “filled with awe”, which discovery almost prompted me to title the post “I am awesome”, until I thought better of it.)

In the Columbia Guide to Standard American Usage, Kenneth G. Wilson writes that in the 1980s the word was “suddenly taken up as a hyperbolic adjective to describe anything better than average”. This seems a fair assessment. Wilson adds that awesome and awesomely “will no doubt one day be perfectly useful words again, but just now [1993] they are shopworn and weary”. A few years later, Bryan Garner wrote of awesome that “[f]or the time being, the word has been spoiled by overuse”. But these judgements should not dissuade you from using it as you see fit. Robert Burchfield, in his third edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, reports that “[t]he traditional reverential use is far from extinct […] in the US, though it is more at risk there than in Britain.”

Awful is a related term, and its history is equally interesting and even more changeable, but this blog post is already long enough. I wrote a little about it here, if you’re curious. And if you’d like to share your thoughts below, that would be awesome.

24 Responses to How awesome is awesome?

  1. Sean Jeating says:

    Aww. Full of some inspiring information this post is, Stan.

    And now the dilettant is after having his pleasure:
    It’s interesting that those who proclaimed a “War on terror’ for their international law violating ‘crusade’ against Saddam would have chosen the motto “Shock and Awe”, thus “Shock and Terror”.

    Fighting terror with terror is like fighting the devil with Beelzebub, isn’t it?

  2. Another fascinating post. The word awful sprung to mind when reading this but you have this covered in another fascinating post! It is sad that awesome has the same stock as pure (in the Henry Mayhew sense of the word)

  3. Stan says:

    Sean: Yes. “Shock and Awe” seems a weirdly triumphalist slogan, like the subtitle of a video game, while “war on terror” always struck me as a cynical misnomer in its implicit repackaging of “war” as something desirable, or even possible against “terror”, whatever that happens to be. (“Terror”, of course, applies only to one’s enemies’ activities.) A war against an abstract idea is a contradiction in terms, or at the very least a hopelessly strained metaphor. All these unsavoury military coinages depend on the spurious manipulation of abstractions, yet they find secure footholds in public debate.

    Jams: Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it! Far from having “awful” covered, I really only touched upon it, but I might write more about it sometime. A visit to the OED was required to confirm what I thought you meant by “the Henry Mayhew sense” of pure, then I found your post about it, along with another interesting one. A curious piece of history. When you say that awesome has the same stock as pure, do you mean that its historical senses are also somewhat ambiguous?

  4. I must ad mit that it amuses me when people use the word pure in its standard unsullied sence, when it was also used as a term for dogshit!

  5. I quite like ‘awesome’ in its traditional sense, and ‘awful’ is a great word (is it hopelessly pretentious, not too mention incorrect, to use ‘awe-full’, to separate it from the more colloquial usage? Probably…) Thanks to Bill and Ted, I have a tendency to use ‘totally’ and ‘bogus’ quite a bit more than I should. But not ‘dude’, which I dislike intensely for some subconscious reason!

  6. Stan says:

    Jams: It’s a strange double meaning all right. There’s also its curious use as a colloquial intensifier (like “sheer”): “When she saw the dog make a mess on the rug, she got pure thick.” I don’t know how widespread this usage is, but I hear it regularly enough here in the mid-west.

    Doubtful: Funny how some slang terms stick (like pure, you might say) but others don’t, as though by some subtle and arbitrary prejudice. I never took to using bogus, but I am (totally) inured to dude; my sister calls me dude habitually, and I use it myself sometimes — usually with affection, sometimes with irony. Though it never went away, in recent years Lebowski gave it a hearty new lease of life.

    The colloquial sense of awful (notable, very bad) dates to the early 18th century, so it’s fairly traditional too. I think you would find very few converts to “awe-full”, and you would probably have to explain yourself at its every mention. It hardly seems worth it; besides, there’s always awestruck, awe-inspiring, etc.

  7. You’re dead right as regards “awe-full”, of course; I think I read it up somewhere very obscure (possibly William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land). And is ‘pure shite’ a tautology?

  8. Stan says:

    Not normally!

  9. Tim says:

    “It is arguably as pointless to bemoan a shift in lexical meaning as it is to gripe at the rising tide for turning your sandcastle into an amorphous lump.”

    The post may have been about disparages in the usage of the term awesome, but this part right here is something I wholly agree with. Why battle against the tide when you are only going to get smashed against the rocks? And yet some would stubbornly hold onto the meanings that they have always known and refuse to accept changes and alterations.

    Thank God English is a living, thriving, and evolving language!

    With regard to the topic at hand, personally, having spent a mere 29 years on this earth, I am of the mind that using colloquialisms, such as awesome, is great. To embrace and use words as they have come to be understood is a whole lot less stressful than building up walls around vocabulary to prevent words from slipping out under certain circumstances; holding onto original meanings for dear life.

    As it stands, I do occasionally — if the situation merits it — use the term in its original sense. Such as in the event of something so powerful or moving that it instills breathtaking awe.

  10. Stan says:

    Thanks for your comment, Tim. You’re right that English is “a living, thriving, and evolving language”; this confers upon its users not only great freedom to use it as they wish, but also a certain responsibility to use it well.

    The extent to which words change over time can be astonishing, so there is no point “building up walls around vocabulary”, as you vividly put it. Lacking any absolute meaning, words allow for considerable variation in interpretation, and it is fascinating to follow collective shifts in such interpretation.

    By the way, for disparages did you mean disparities?

  11. ZombieZoidberg says:

    Useless trivia: the phrase ‘that’s O for awesome’ is used a lot in New Zealand when describing something, um, awesome. It’s origins are from a celebrity Wheel of Fortune, where boxer David Tua got his spelling a bit confused…

  12. Stan says:

    ZZ: That is both funny and interesting — not useless at all! Have you brought the phrase back with you? I’m tempted to use it now.

  13. ZombieZoidberg says:

    The phrase does get used occasionally in our house. Give it a whirl.

  14. […] awesome * Very Important Pixels has finally launched tees using their cleverly observed, hilariously […]

  15. […] in language is set in stone. I find this awesome. So whence the joyless peevology, the empty outrage over nounings, neologisms, and colloquialisms? […]

  16. Garrett says:

    I have trouble with the idea that the change in the meaning of “awesome” implies a devaluation. It may be that I just don’t understand what you’re saying. I would have said that the word has become less specific. I believe what you are saying is that as it moves into a realm of vague definitions, the word becomes less valuable or less valued. If this is the case, I may agree. Although language does evolve over time, our increased interest in tracking word usage causes us to hold on to meanings that may have been lost, which creates a proliferation of meaning for particular words. While I find this proliferation fascinating through the possibility of enriched meaning, I also recognize a danger that words will lost the ability to be easily understood. In some ways, I think this problem is resolved by a separation between the way people speak and write, but this separation is also weaker than it has been.

    Anyway, I’m not really offering any solutions, but I was wondering what you meant when you talked about a decrease in value:

    “What’s more probable, and less tongue-in-cheek, is that the word’s meaning has simply devalued. And I mean no value judgement. It is arguably as pointless to bemoan a shift in lexical meaning as it is to gripe at the rising tide for turning your sandcastle into an amorphous lump.”

    I love the sentiment, but I’m not sure what “simply devalued” means.

  17. Stan says:

    Thanks for your comment, Garrett. You’re right that the word has become less specific. When I said its meaning had devalued, I was referring to the change in the type of experience or event it was used to describe. Where once it was used in an exalted and humbling sense, now it’s generally used in a very offhand way to remark on what are often mundane things and occurrences. Maybe devalued wasn’t the best term; I’m open to suggestions.

  18. […] 35. is the word awesome used more by young people today? [I believe so.] […]

  19. […] in language is set in stone. I find this awesome. So whence the joyless peevology, the empty outrage over nounings, neologisms, and […]

  20. David Morris says:

    I wonder if, towards the end of the 17th century, there was an aweful/awful usage debate over the ‘proper’ meaning of ‘awesome’, something along the lines of nauseous/nauseated or healthful/healthy now.

    • Stan says:

      It’s possible, David, though I don’t remember reading anything along those lines. I would look into it if I weren’t away from my usage-history books at the moment.

  21. maximos62 says:

    I’ve been trying to work this out as well. Congratulations, you’ve taken a deeper dive than me. Here are some reflections from Australia.

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