Thursday, November 20, 2008

Shock at awe

I am going to an all you can eat Chinese restaurant tonight. A pleasant evening out I grant you but not, as one of my younger colleagues said, 'awesome'. It seems that these days anything from going to the supermarket to visiting the ladies is worthy of the epithet 'awesome'.
Now call me old-fashioned if you like but I would say a volcano erupting is awesome or the basilica in Rome but not a night out in a nightclub or as many spring rolls as you can eat. How is it that this perfectly decent word has become so casually applied? Surely if we rake every experience up to this level of hyperbole, the word becomes redundant and we run out of words for genuinely amazing sights and experiences.
So I decided to look 'awesome' up in my etymology dictionary. Awe comes from a Germanic word for 'fear', not something I often feel when looking at a selection of rices and other Oriental dishes. I might fear that the rice hasn't been heated adequately and may be about to give me food poisoning but that's only a minor fear that I manage to assuage with a quick test of the temperature of the hotlocks. Awesome denotes something that inspires feelings of awe, i.e. reverential wonder of fear, and it therefore makes me wonder how it became a replacement word for 'exciting' , 'thrilling' or even 'really rather good'.
I suspect the blame can be placed at the door of the United States who are lovers of words that end in the suffix 'some', such as winsome and lonesome. Anyway I am thinking of secretly sending my young colleague a list of alternative adjectives to describe her nights out - now that would be awesome of me.

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