My angelic teenage daughter just used a foul word in front of me

My daughter just said ‘awesome’.

Yes, I know. Thank you for your sympathy.

In mitigation, I can say that English is not her first language.

My daughter is a very intelligent, very bright person — yesterday, we were at her school open day and we were impressed with the way she answered all the questions correctly without appearing even little bit swotty, and even when her classmates were floundering. She was confident and socially at ease and her mother and I were very proud.

And then today she said ‘awesome’.

Is this the same child?

Ironically, I was complementing her on her English. She had written an email to her grandmother in Britain on the occasion of her birthday and I told her that her note was perfect.

‘Awesome’, she replied and my world buckled and wobbled.

She obviously picked it up from somewhere outside the home. She didn’t hear that word from her parents.

Regardless of where it came from, there it was. She used it. In my home. To my face.
It was a reminder that we cannot insulate our children forever from the stupidity, ignorance, and bad sense of other people no matter how hard we try.

I explained to her that awesome is an American expression. She replied ‘LOL’ and that she ‘totally’ didn’t know that.

Sigh.

In citing the American origins of the expression I am afraid I misled my daughter because that is not the reason I object to it. In characterising my sense of offence as a matter of regional difference I failed to seize the opportunity to explain something important about language. America doesn’t really come into it, except as being part of the world we live in, and I really have nothing against American English. The abuse of awesome may as well have started in Lithuania or Margate and my reaction to it would be the same.

Both my daughter and I were on our way to different things and I reached for a shorthand explanation: It’s American; you’re not; neither am I. Which is the kind of lazy thinking that leads us to people saying awesome in the first place.

The point is that awesome is a foul word because its current usage has nothing to do with what it means.

For those of you who don’t know (apparently anyone under 40 now) awesome means full of feeling of terror and wonder. It is a very strong word. However, a large proportion of the English speakers of this planet throw the word around as often as they can and for any reason — or, more accurately, no good reason at all.

Awesome has become a catch-all for the bland, the banal, the quotidian, the commonplace. Awesome has become a synonym for ‘quite good’, ‘not bad’, ‘fairly nice’.

Clearly, it is an expression that has been born out of affectation, exaggeration and appalling ignorance. Someone somewhere decided that using normal vocabulary for normal things didn’t make them or their life sound utterly fantastic, so they plucked from the rarified heights of language anything that sounded good and to hell with what it actually meant.

Not so long ago, to be truly awesome, something needed make you stop and feel giddy with real, strong feelings. It needed to make you feel your tiny, insignificant place in the grand scheme of things. It needed to rock your soul (that’s rock as in move, kids, not rock as in guitars and drums). Awesome conveyed the sense of being filled with the terror of revelation.

Here is a random sample of things that are properly awesome:
•    the crab nebula
•    infinity
•    a sunrise viewed from a mountain whose peak you have just scaled
•    becoming a parent and realising you have created life
•    Mozart’s Requiem
•    the universe
•    the fact of life in this universe, with special reference to this spinning ball of rock and gas
•    the power of nature as manifested through earthquakes, tsunami, typhoons, erupting volcanos

Here are some things that are not awesome:
•    socks
•    chocolate you bought in the convenience store
•    coffee in plastic cups you got from the same convenience store
•    last night’s television
•    hairstyles
•    Justin Bieber, Will Pharrell or anyone you have seen on MTV, ever — trust me, I’ve looked into this
•    a current absence of precipitation
•    the Pikachu tattoo your friend just had done

So you see a pattern there? If you are still not sure about what is awesome and what isn’t, try this as a rule of thumb: if it is a normal day and your are doing your regular things, and you find yourself claiming that something is awesome, you are almost certainly completely and utterly wrong. Awesome just doesn’t happen in a normal course of events. That’s a pretty simple guide, don’t you think? The only people for whom this rule of thumb might not work is astronauts and pre-Christian deities, two groups whose livelihoods are inextricably bound up with transcendent amazingness.

Even worse than the reflexive invocation of ineffable wonder at the least significant and blandest thing is the invocation of relative ineffable wonder: it’s kinda awesome, it’s fairly awesome. Again, the logic of the construction should be ringing alarm bells, even if the object of your wonder doesn’t. You are saying that something inspires partial feelings of terror and wonder. What would those be like? A vague sense of curiosity and unease, perhaps? An odd tingling behind the kneecaps?

Perhaps there is a logic there after all. Perhaps ‘fairly awesome’ touches a truth: these socks would be awesome if they were in fact not socks but a supernova, but they are not a supernova they are just socks, so they fall short of full-on awesome.

We used to have the word ‘nice’. A vague and twee word, notwithstanding, it was built for the essential dullness of the everyday. To debase a stronger word to substitute a word that is already sufficiently insipid for the day-to-day is asinine.

Does this matter? Isn’t it just a matter of semantics and, well, words, and stuff?
Yes, it does matter. It matters because thoughtless expression is a result of lack of thought.

It matters because careless use of words diminishes what can actually be said.

What if you encounter a lunar eclipse framed by the aurora borealis and you have just used up ‘awesome’ on a YouTube video of a kid falling off his bike and cracking his balls? What word do you have to convey what you are feeling now?

We will have to reach for a new one. How about ‘gosh’? I don’t think we’ve used gosh in a long time. Perhaps we can dig it out of the naff old word drawer and dust it off. We can say things of truly inspiring magnitude are goshsome because they fill us with feelings of gosh.

Of course, we’ll have to ascribe it a whole new meaning. Where gosh used be something run of the mill, we’ll have to switch it in our lexicon with awesome. Those of us with faith can be in gosh of God. Those of us without, can gosh our hearts out to black holes and rain forests.

Awesome is not the only word to have been eviscerated by our mad dash for effect or our inability to use a dictionary: unique, epicentre, forces, iconic, and beg a question are among a long list of victims.

Instead of rendering our reactions to the world meaningless by beating them with our desire to dramatise ourselves, we could stop and identify what we actually think, and express that idea instead. How about that?

Now that I’ve got my thoughts straight, that’s what I would like to tell my awesome daughter

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About chrispagefiction

Author of the novels Sanctioned, Weed, King of the Undies World, and The Underpants Tree; also the story collection Un-Tall Tales; editor, freelance writer and all that stuff. At heart he is a London person, but the rest of his body is a long-term exile in Osaka, Japan.
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