I wrote a tweet earlier – before discarding it because I couldn’t fit the requisite nuance and cadence into 140 characters – which described Alienware’s new PC as ‘awesome’. And as ever when I write ‘awesome’, I fancied I could already hear the tuts of people who dislike the modern appropriation of the word. Its root, of course, is ‘awe’, and ‘awesome’, they say, should be reserved for things that genuinely inspire that sense of wonder, humility and amazement.
The problem, they say, is that if we rob ‘awesome’ of its power, we’ll be left with no further superlatives when faced with something that genuinely fills us with awe.
For starters, language works by consensus, and that’s it. If I point to a rock, declare that henceforth I shall instead call it a snooglebustle, and you start doing the same, we’ve just made language happen. And if I tell you that the hot dog I had for dinner was awesome, you don’t literally think I was filled with awe, struck dumb at the sheer, unknowable majesty of a tube of finely-minced lips and assholes. Language changes – in English at least, dictionaries describe language, they don’t prescribe and proscribe it – and as well as coining new words, old words can either have their meanings reappropriated or can rub along quite happily, thank you very much, with a new. It should be entirely clear from context whether someone’s use of ‘awesome’ reflects the meaning ‘really, very, and delightfully good’ or ‘cower before your god, brief mortals’.
Here’s the other thing, though. Even if we completely lose ‘awesome’ in its traditional sense, we won’t lose our capacity to feel awe, and if ‘awesome’ comes only to keep its modern meaning, we’ll make a new word – and completely organically and by consensus, without really trying. It might be completely new, or it might be another word that has a similar or completely antithetical meaning. And then people will bitch about how that word is being robbed of its true meaning.