If there’s one thing in the world that will make you look a fool, apart from proudly striding out of your home and onto the train to work but with your posh jumper worn inside out and your handwritten sewn-in name tag visible, it’s using the word awesome.
I first came across how this ridiculously overused word was used inappropriately in a dull everyday situation about 11 years ago. I was with my girlfriend in a newly discovered restaurant in Shoreditch, London. I ordered a steak, rare. The waitress dutifully scribbled on her pad, beamed the biggest smile she could possibly beam, and screeched out the word with all the incredulous enthusiasm of a 7-year-old boy who had just been served the biggest knickerbocker glory he had ever seen. My ears reverberated with the pain.
I asked my girlfriend how the fuck is that awesome? And why did she say it like that? I only ordered a steak. We shrugged our shoulders in bemusement. The steak, as it turned out, was very under-awesome. Perhaps I should have notified the owner about this under-awesomeness. He might have had an awesomeness chart in his back office to keep tabs on how well his restaurant was doing on the awesomeness front. There’s probably an awesome app somewhere today.
A sad end to an awesome restaurant.
A couple of weeks later the restaurant burst into flames and the fire raged all night. By the next day, there wasn’t much left of the place. This was a shame as it had a handsome interior; an eclectic mix of 70s furniture, the obligatory bare brick walls, high ceilings, a lovely outside balcony with fancy plants that you viewed through a high and wide glass window, large friendly patterned corner sofas, and a typical contemporary bar with all the sparkly trimmings that made you want to order a cocktail for the hell of it. It was all very Shoreditch warehousy, yet charming and of the moment, and if I were a young restaurant critic today, I’d be duty-bound to describe it as awesome.
We walked past the smouldering carcass with the scent of acrid smoke lingering in the air. I saw the spot where we sat for dinner, now in mid-air, in between the charred steel girders. I imagined all the firefighters doing their utmost to save it all with the danger that this entails, and the locals praying like shit the fire didn’t reach their homes. It was a sad but arresting and frightening sight. There’s something chilling about a burnt-out building that makes you think twice about all that went on within it.
I could imagine the owner gasping in horror as he watched his beloved business going up in flames. He probably wouldn’t have described what he saw as awesome, but he might’ve been filled with dread, his blood draining from his face, and fearful of all the consequences, yet awesome would have been perfectly apt. This neatly leads to the original meaning of awesome.
Awesome. It’s an appalling and dreadful word.
As with a lot of words in the English language, the meaning of the word awesome has morphed into something else. Originally awesome meant inspiring awe, appalling, dreadful, weird. Or dread mingled with veneration, reverential or respectful fear. See for yourself here in the very long The new English dictionary on historical principles
Thus, if the restaurant owner felt such dread and perhaps a little weird at the sight of his smouldering building - and who wouldn’t - he would’ve been in awe. But now awesome is used as an exclamation of approval or something that is simply pleasing. Which is a pity. If I saw a boat capsize in rough seas I’d be thinking of the poor souls on board and also the power and force of nature and I’d be in awe, and I’d be itching to scream 'Awesome!', which admittedly, doesn’t sound right, but you get the point.
The horrible awesomeness of greeting cards.
Awesome is being used and abused on all sorts of greeting cards. 'You are truly awesome!' and 'Sometimes you forget you’re awesome!' makes me wince. And my particular favourite 'You’re all kinds of awesome' leaves me baffled. I have no idea what this means but given its original meaning, it’s very funny and does make me chuckle. 'You’re all kinds of dread mingled with respectful fear' sounds so much better and a lot more fun. And maybe a lot more accurate. That’s a card you give to someone you know really well.
The true meaning of awesome has been lost, and so has its appeal and usefulness. What was once used sparingly to describe a feeling that was profound and meaningful, is now used every minute merely to describe a trivial pleasure, such as buying a pair of woolly socks from Marks & Spencer. What a waste of a great old word.