How Awesome Is "Awesome"? Not Very.
Unless you're a resident of the Lego Movie's Bricksburg where "Everything is Awesome," you may have noticed that calling things awesome is not quite as awesome as it used to be.
inescapable, like verbal kudzu choking out the variegated richness of the English language–so omnipresent it seem[s] like an acceptable substitute for just about any word… a lingua franca of evanescent mush, a meme of meaninglessness masquerading as communication and cool.…
The use of awesome as a default word for just about everything is a killer of business accuracy and clarity. It bespeaks imprecision, inaccuracy, comfort with noncommunication, and impoverishment of imagination. “Awesome” is not cool. It is not outré. It is not out-of-the-box. It is mindless, shallow, slothful, ersatz, and, ultimately, disrespectful of anyone you are speaking to. I would suggest it is a good word for any entrepreneur to shake from his or her sandals.
Words are not irrelevant in a post-Jetsons world. They are ever illuminating. They are necessary. They are the house of the truth of being. They are grandiloquent, magnificent, magical, stupendous, fabulous, unbelievable, and extraordinary. These words have meaning. Awesome does not.
For a history of how awesome came to be so omnipresent, we turn to Robert Lane Greene, Europe business and finance correspondent for The Economist and author of You Are What You Speak. He explains how, early in the 20th century, awesome was called into service in the Bible, as a descriptor for God, replacing the King James translation's terrible when terrible's meaning had morphed from "fear-inspiring" to "bad" or even "poorly done." Greene writes:
But around the same time, a different change was happening to “awesome”. It was defined in 1980 in the “Official Preppy Handbook”, a bestselling semi-satirical look at well-heeled American youth: “Awesome: terrific, great.” It had a bit of California surfer-dude and Valley Girl, too. By 1982, the Guardian was mocking the West Coast with “It’s so awesome, I mean, fer shurr, toadly, toe-dully!”
Soon the word needed no definition.…“Awesome” has been with my generation in America so long that it now has a whiff of retro. There is a Tumblr blog entitled “My Parents Were Awesome”, which features pictures, mostly from the 1960s and 1970s, of the writers’ parents looking young and cool. It generated a spin-off book that included nostalgic essays by some of the children. And “awesome” caught on not only with my age group, but with anyone young enough to be considered young or youngish when “awesome” became awesome. Barack Obama, a college student in Los Angeles when the “Official Preppy Handbook” came out, turned it into a joke on the campaign trail in 2008. When asked what was his biggest weakness, he would say: “It’s possible I’m a little too awesome.”
So if not because awesome is overused, then because it's a 1980s cliché, it's time to change our lives with a single word by striking it from our vocabularies.
But before we do, we should be careful about what we say instead. In a follow-up to his anti-awesome post, Askew came out against amazing, fabulous, totally, incredible, unbelievable, and cool. As with awesome,
These words smack of the jejune. These are words of regurgitated, hyperventilating cliche that brand their practitioners as lightweight and unserious servants to the tyranny of the given. These words are a medley of breathless hyperbole and empty cacophony, without real import when applied to your or any business.
The point, Askew reminds us, of dropping these words from our vocabularies is not to try to make ourselves willfully obtuse and difficult to understand, but to find ways to be specific in our language and say what we genuinely mean.
[Dropping overused words] does not mean you should pepper your business conversations with obscure parlance, artificially grandiose phrases, fustian excess or arbitrary verbal whimsy.…Words of real meaning bring shadings of specificity and descriptive depth, even a sensual enlivening, to the most prosaic of business or product discussions. They matter.
Since we're now not going to say that Askew's point is not just awesome, but fabulously amazing and unbelievably cool, we'll leave it at Hear, hear!