The depreciation of the language is a sad thing.
Words that once had rich and powerful meaning are diminished through abuse and ignorance. It’s been going on for centuries, but until the language became relatively standardized in the past couple of hundred years, there was no real sense of order, so it wasn’t fair, say, five hundred years ago or so, to argue that Amos was linguistically wrong when he said he liked a chap’s wife’s “tarts,” and found himself soundly thrashed because the other fellow used the same word to mean something entirely different from what Amos intended.
Amos may have been unfortunate in his choice of word, but he really wasn’t lexicographically incorrect, since there weren’t any dictionaries in his time. Today, we do have dictionaries, but, unfortunately, the golden age in which words meant A and not B in standard usage has all but vanished with the rise of the descriptive linguist.
These days, if enough people reputed to have at least a modicum of intelligence screw up a word enough times, the shabby usage gets a place in the dictionary.
I’m afraid that may be the next destination for the word “awesome” in its greatly reduced meaning.
Oops! It’s already there. Take your eyes off this stuff for a minute and—
Well, anyway, here’s what awesome really means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (unabridged, online): “Full of awe, profoundly reverential.” Merriam-Webster (unabridged, online) says it means: “Expressive of awe: deeply reverent.”
But the OED also includes this: “In trivial use, as an enthusiastic term of commendation: ‘marvellous’, ‘great’; stunning, mind-boggling. slang.” And M-W has: “chiefly US, informal: extremely or amazingly good:
At least, for now, the OED describes the usage as “slang,” while M-W is looser in calling it “informal.”
Of course, the descriptive linguists who write modern dictionaries would never pass judgment on whether a usage should be accepted or rejected. The eventual result of that approach with respect to “awesome” may or may not be that the ridiculous reduction of a powerful, impression-conveying word eventually becomes accepted as a received optional meaning.
It may be, however, with any luck, that it fades, withers and dies the death of many faddish expressions. When I was a teenager, we said for a time, “It’s hardly great,” which meant “It’s really great,” in much the way young kids today say something is “sick” when they mean it’s something to be admired or desired. (Although, that usage may have vanished. I’m not sure. It is, after all, so “last week.”)
Okay, so, think of just how absurd the “informal” use of “awesome” is.
Compare, for example: “The Grand Canyon, one of the wonders of the world, is truly awesome in its grandeur.”
“I’ve cleaned the Kitty Litter, dear.”
“I’ve had that boil removed from my backside.”
“I’m not getting athlete’s foot as much since I began wearing thongs in the locker room.”
“Awesome. Sorry, did you say you’re wearing a thong in the locker room?”
“Thongs, thongs—plural. On my feet.”
“Oh, that’s good. Awesome.”
“The volcano erupted in an awesome display of the power of nature.”
“The double-rolls of toilet paper were on sale, so I bought two packages.”
Or, how about:
“The dog has done three poops today.”
“Wow, that’s awesome.”
No, it isn’t. None of these banalities deserves to be described as “awesome.” In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find much that was less awesome than these and countless other minor events, inconsequential successes and developments that are daily, hourly said to be “awesome.”
“Hey, Harriet, I just got an awesome deal on an awesome pair of stain-resistant, stretchy-waistband boxer shorts. How about that!”
“Well, that’s awesome, Ozzie. The only thing is, you don’t wear boxer shorts; you wear briefs.”
“I know, but you don’t think I’d look awesome in boxers?”
“I think you look more awesome in briefs.”
“Awesome. I’ll see whether they have the same deal on briefs.”
“I must say, the stain-resistant thing sounds like an awesome idea.”