Recently, on Twitter, a fellow tweeter (who shall remain unnamed) asked me to stop using awesome to mean, like, really cool. This person, like many others, is frustrated that the milder use common among Americans is weakening a once-powerful word. The first definition of awesome in most dictionaries is its more traditional meaning: inspiring great admiration or fear.
But even though this tweeter and their compatriots are not totally off base with this complaint, I didn’t stop to consider the request for a single second before rejecting it. And reader, I’m sticking by that decision.
You see, awesome may once have been reserved for seeing the face of god or describing the power of the atomic bomb, but we’ve been using it for much less mind-boggling situations for decades, at least in the states. The OED dates awesome meaning merely “remarkable” to at least 1961, and the “excellent or impressive” sense has been around in print since at least 1979.
After some rather laborious efforts with a calculator, I have determined that people have been using awesome the same way I use awesome since before I was born. Am I not allowed to use the language of my time, dear reader? Shall I describe that which I enjoy immensely as “keen,” “ace,” or “the cat’s pajamas”? Or is it just that I must always speak in a formal register, never slipping into even the most common colloquialisms, and denote my approval with “marvelous,” “splendid,” and “exemplary”? Shall I be forced to say, “This is the ne plus ultra of cat videos”?
Or if that’s not it, is it that I’m supposed to lament that language changes, that a word has gained another meaning, and that the new meaning might eventually eclipse its original sense? Well, I’d like to say that I’m fine with the process of language change, except “fine” originally meant “of superior quality,” only gaining the sense of “OK” in the early 1900s. Perhaps I should say that I’m cool with it? Oh, no, wait, I am actually a normal human temperature at the moment. Crap, what am I supposed to say? …Oh, uh, apparently “crap” used to mean “the husk of grain.” My bad, guys.
Well anyway, language change is completely normal, usually irreversible, and often necessary. Trying to stop it is like standing on the beach and yelling at the tide not to come in. Language doesn’t care whether everyone is OK with its changes, or even whether everyone adopts them. You can personally resist the newer meaning of “awesome” by refusing to use the word that way, as long as you don’t expect others to join you.
But hey, no hard feelings, peevers. I hope you have an awesome time at the beach.