Friday, June 12, 2009


Maybe we should give the word “awesome” some rest. I mean, is there anyone else out there who thinks that the word “awesome” is becoming a tad overused? This was all brought into high relief during a recent visit to Starbucks. My tendering of exact change was met by a hearty “awesome!” from the barista. Shortly after, I heard about the first twitter from space—one of the astronauts simply messaged, “Launch was awesome!” Well, there are literally miles apart in the way that this exhausted exclamation was used in both cases and I think it’s probably quite telling.

Afterwards, I happened to be speaking with Peter Merlin, who is the base archivist at Edwards Air Force Base and works for NASA. I mentioned the launch tweet and said, “Now, you guys really do know the meaning of ‘awesome’—take those Hubble images peering back to the edge of time some 13.4 billion years and almost to the Big Bang—now that’s a truly awesome feat, dude.” He’d just seen the space shuttle take off from Edwards piggybacked on top of its tricked-out 747 ride, and for anyone who’s ever seen the shuttle take off or land—well, you know that it is an experience that dwarfs one’s self—and is truly an awesome sight to behold.

How did a surfer’s exclamation like “awesome” become today’s unequivocal, number one superlative? This is a word that was traditionally reserved for approximating the transcendental—historically, its use is far from common because it has been generally used as a description of the indescribable—the mystical, psychedelic experiences, seeing into other worlds, the streaking of a UFO over Roswell, New Mexico, the vast impact crater of a meteor near Winslow Arizona, the majestic heights of the Himalayas, perhaps the mile deep expanse of the Grand Canyon or merely the jaw-dropping sight of contemplating infinite space in the sprawl of stars in a clear night sky.

No matter, the adaptation and morphing of words into popular culture provides a fascinating window into the evolution of language, class structure, and the evolution or devolution of consciousness. Let’s not only take it out on poor “awesome.” There are some other offenders that are equally annoying--and revealing. Take for example, the word “like”, another vastly overused, overwrought word that now has multiple uses beyond its original sense and some that no longer mean anything at all. That’s where meaning gets really interesting for my money.

Casual eavesdropping at a high school, local mall or watching any reality or celebrity talk show will reveal the word “like” abounding, crashing into consciousness in wave upon wave onto the shore of one's mind until it makes you submit to white noise like a jargonaut jingle—“It’s just like, well it’s sort of like unbelievable, you know—I’m like, well, he said to me that he’s not like, in love with me—like, not at all! And I’m like, if it’s not like, ‘love’, then is it like, a deep feeling, at least? Like it really hurts, you know. Like, oh, whatever!”

How did a word that was once charmed lower class Elizabethan popular theater goers when utilized discretely by the likes of William Shakespeare become the province of the stoned-out, 50's beatnik or hippie, watered down, safe for 60's TV version of the Maynard G. Krebs character in "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" or 70's version of Shaggy on "Scoobie Doo"?

In this latter usage, it has evolved into some kind of verbal placeholder to mark time while the speaker scrambles to find the words and articulate a response. No one is saying here that natural speech is the same as prepared remarks—we don’t expect that our daily conversations demonstrate the same stilted flow as those based on using handy teleprompters and speechwriters. As such, our everyday dialogues are filled with placeholders of one kind of another—“um” is probably most common example in the US and UK, and one that is profiled in the wonderful book, "Um. . .: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean" by Michael Erard.

Prior use of the word “like” (before it was appropriated by today’s teenagers), was traditionally as a preposition or as a figure of speech. In this use, it is still known as a “simile” and seeks to compare two unlike things in the reader or listener’s mind. Shakespeare used one when he lamented of the dead Julius Caesar, “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus.”

Perhaps what we are seeing in its new usage is the sad result of the modern mind becoming less capable of holding two separate ideas simultaneously. I’ve written before about the losses that can be associated with technology and its influence on behavior such as personalization.

Multi-tasking, much ballyhooed as an emergent asset of so-called millennials and other techno-savvy youth, also must have a downside if it is just a downsizing of the attention span of the user. And it’s not just restricted to exuberant digerati. Studies of cell phone use among drivers have shown that accidents are far more likely when activities are combined—in the case of men, they are 40% more likely to have an accident, and women 60% more likely to have a mishap—one of the reasons that many states now have laws about texting and handheld calling while driving.

Shortly after beginning to write this post, I bumped into Barry Sanders, author of the classic popular study of literacy and media, "A Is for Ox: The Collapse of Literacy and the Rise of Violence in an Electronic Age". His book provides an in-depth look at what we are losing as a society as we struggle to extract ourselves from the La Brea Tar Pits of daily media immersion. I told Barry that I’d recently become obsessed with the “awesome” phenomenon and was busy exorcizing myself through a blog post. He cheerily replied, “Oh, ‘awesome’ is a word from my century—the 14th!”

Consideration of the word’s origin in the distant past does shed some light on how far we’ve come in the evolution of the word. Actually, the first historically referenced use is probably before 1300 in “Arthour and Merlin” which was developed from an earlier age, when it was used around 1250 in “The Story of Genesis and Exodus”. Apparently, it had been borrowed from the Scandinavian, aghe or the Old Icelandic agi, both meaning “fear”. Interestingly, the Greek achos is similar and means “distress and pain”. Discovering its etymology, I was beginning to lessen my angst by hearing of its reference to pain. By Barry’s era in the 1400's, the Middle English word had spawned “aweful”, meaning “to inspire fear and terror” and by 1598, we see the first use of “awesome.” I was finally feeling like I was getting home.

But in 1997, I left my home in Hollywood and started working for a Bay Area startup. It was then that I was introduced to another word I hadn’t heard since watching Kookie Burns on “77 Sunset Strip”—the word was “cool”. Again, it’s another superlative and like so many slang terms and phrases that jump into youth culture—again, superlatives like “dope”, “tight”, “fat”—it comes primarily from African American jazz diction, where it originally described a genre as well as a state of artistry that audiences tried to mimic. "Juba To Jive", a dictionary of African American slang indicates that it’s been in use from 1650 or so, derived originally from Mandingo and entering into popular usage in England as early as the 1590's. By the 1930's, American gangsters and tramps were using it to refer to killing someone, or someone who was "a stiff". It also came to refer to a person who displayed “great self control”.

As the opposite of “hot”, it grew in the 1940's as an adjective to mean someone who was aloof, detached, unflappable and unflustered, but also a hip cat or chick who was as fashionable as the cool jazz, martini soundtrack of the times—as in “Cool, Daddy-o!” During the hippie era, it came to mean, “I don’t have any dope on me, officer!” as in “”I’m cool” or in the way that the Dennis Hopper character tries to reassure Martin Sheen’s in "Apocalypse Now" that Col. Kurtz (as portrayed by Marlon Brando), is “cool” despite the fact that his jungle camp is festooned willy-nilly with decapitated bodies and chopped off heads.

Perhaps more telling than common superlatives is another word in the commons, particularly among teenage vocabulary—“whatever”. Kind of the contemporary version of what The Sex Pistols once described in the chorus of “God Save The Queen” as “No future”, it takes the placeholder status of “like” one step further and can be seen as the ultimate dodge of having an opinion one way or the other. Like the color black that is favored by punks and inspired by the same boutique as The Sex Pistols, it is an expression of no color or opinion. What we may be bearing witness to is a media saturated generation with expanded options, information overload served in snack size bytes, but having no real power of choice.

In a fascinating piece by media writer, Paul Parton called "The Consumer: Adjusting To Internet Time", which appeared in Mediapost in 2007, he points us to what may be the crux of the matter: “Now, with the Web, there’s often no lag time between stimulus and response…an entirely new dynamic with significant implications for the way we create marketing communications and build brands…It’s advertising’s ‘butterfly effect’.”

The point is that previously, short attention span was a bad thing for building connections or creating a “cultural bond” between brands and consumers. Now, with Amazon's one-click, instantaneous purchasing app, impulse buying—long the province of convenience store counters and infomercials only—is now the industry standard. So, if advertising traditionally relied on what Robert Heath wrote in "The Hidden Power of Advertising" as “implicit” or long term memory, where brand messages work over time in the subconscious—is advertising now dead? That may be a subject for debate or at least a future post, but in this case, what is important is that, if the loop is closed so tightly in time, what becomes of the decision process if there is no lag time between stimulus and response?

What you get is not only “cool”, but another phrase I first heard in Silicon Valley—“cool stuff”. What exactly is “stuff” anyway? It’s in common use as a sort of come-on—as in “and other cool stuff!” As such, it sounds somewhat similar to “whatever”—just more…things of some non-descript, description. “Stuff” originally meant the kind of quilted material that was placed underneath chain mail in the Middle Ages—hence, it’s slang use as someone who is described as a “stuffed shirt”.

In 2005, there were a number of results published by scientists for experiments that showed human beings were still evolving. In particular, genetic research has led to conclusions that homo sapiens' brains have added or “selected” versions of genes over time that may have influenced cognition, and therefore, changes in capability of making what Terence McKenna once called, “organized mouth noises” or language.

But, as Christine Kenneally says in “The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language,”: “Not all change is good. As much as language enables us to control nature and keep our environments stable, it also makes possible the dramatic altering of our environment in unexpected and dangerous ways. The same language skills that promote technological innovations like water irrigation, road building, and air conditioning also produce the ozone destroying pollution and countless other ecological dangers of the modern age. Any of these phenomena could result in a sharp left turn for the human genome. And perhaps the same linguistic skills that give us science and currently some control over DNA, will lead to our own extinction in less obvious ways. Language and material culture have greatly increased the mobility of the world’s population, and some researchers believe that this will lead to an unhealthy and irreversible diminishing of variation in our genome. As more and more humans breed across the boundaries of genetic variation, we become a blander, more homogenous bunch than our diverse parent groups. This could be a problem…for the more we are the same, the easier it is for one single thing to make us extinct.”

Perhaps we are beginning to see this homogenization factor in language. Is understanding a brand logo the same as identifying with a clan symbol or totem? What is missing in the former is a connection to personal as opposed to corporate history. The latter fulfills the need for story in the myths of tribes and cultures. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that marketers have been speaking for the last several years about a brand telling a story and emphasizing narrative in testimonials and association with celebrities whose endorsements come with their own attendant PR mythologies.

We live in dangerous times for not only our environment, but language, too—when text becomes a verb as in “texting” and now ‘twitter”. The June 11 edition of Daily Finance, just announced that “Twitter Breaks the Verb Barrier”:

“It may be reducing us all to a bunch of semi-literate, hashtag-spewing teenagers, but Twitter's influence on the English language can't be ignored, in the view of the Associated Press. The microblogging service has reached a new milestone, earning a promotion from noun to verb in the new edition of the AP Stylebook.

That means AP writers (and others who observe the news collective's style guidelines) can now, without shame or censure, use the phrase "to Twitter" in place of the wordier "to post a Twitter update." Tweet, the preferred term for a Twitter post, also works as a verb, per AP. The timing is appropriate, coming a day after the Global Language Monitor declared "Web 2.0" the millionth word to enter the English language.

Think having your brand name recognized as a verb isn't a big deal? Tell that to Microsoft, which chose the name "Bing" for its revamped search engine in part because it thinks the moniker will "verb up" in the manner of Google.”

Is complexity of language a sign of evolution or devolution? Latin, a highly complex tongue, has long been considered a “dead language”. Many languages are going extinct as discussed in an earlier post. With some six thousand languages remaining on Earth, about half of the world’s population speaks only ten of them with English the most dominant one.

According to Kenneally, every two weeks, the world loses another language. She observes, “When a language dies, we lost the knowledge that was encoded in it. Though we assume that when knowledge is lost, it has been superseded by a superior version, a dead language, with all its unique ways of carving up the world, is as irreplaceable as the dodo or Tyrannosaurus rex. Unfortunately, even if we, and our languages, are still evolving, we still don’t know where we’re heading.”

The retired professor of physics at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study, Freeman Dyson, is more optimistic: “When teenagers become as fluent in the language of genomes as they are today in the language of blogs, they will be designing and growing all kinds of works for fun and profit.” Now, that's a scary notion which gets me right back to the original meaning of “awesome”—what a terror inspiring concept!

If we no longer know the origins of words that we are using continuously, almost automatically, is something already extinct in us? And do words lose their new meaning if they are beaten to death? If everything is “awesome”, then what words can we use to describe the truly awesome? But, things could be really bad—I mean, we could end up like the Hopi people who have no tenses because they have no word for the concept of "time". Does having a really short attention span lead to time travel or living in the moment of instant gratification?

Seriously though, the Hopi were onto something truly awesome in what the linguist Benjamin Whorf called “Hopi Time” as are the Inuit people who famously have scores of words to describe what we civilized folks shrink wrap to “snow”. Who are the primitives now? Are we downsizing not only our vocabularies, but our consciousness by shrink wrapping language for convenience sake? Where is the expansive, future hybrid lexicon of the youth tribes in "A Clockwork Orange" when you need it? Maybe a reference to this tribal linguistic superiority can motivate us to dig down into our own war chest and find some new superlatives or perhaps we can just go back to using the word “great” or some other expression of exclamation. Now that would be truly awesome, dude...


Silvanus Slaughter said...

Another truly 'awesome' article, Kevin (wink). No, really. This is Time or Newsweek worthy (well, better). We zip from the late great Terrence McKenna to your scary pal at Concepts Something analyzing how to help studios create yet more soulless, fail-safe films, all the while wondering where this acid trip of a modern culture is going to land us.

Anyway, enjoyed it so much, and, as usual, learned a lot. No, I'm not of to Twitter, even though I'm glad the Iranians have it.

Oh, I would vote "cute" as the next most annoying, overused word.

Kevin Stein said...

Silvio, your comment is truly dudesome, awe!

Kevin Henry said...

Bitch'n blog man! And when did swearing...especially the "F" word replace punctuation ?

Kevin Stein said...

Kevin, as always, some of your questions are bigger than the answers! Certainly, the gradual, but inexorable infiltration of the "F" word into public discourse is the subject for a future post methinks. However, if I were to guess right now, it's a generational thing where the original highly-charged cast of the word has diminished in the ears of some due to more casual overuse--that said, I know it still does not go over in high places or high society as an adjective--witness Bono at the Golden Globe Awards Ceremony and the subsequent six-figure fine of the network--or in the halls of our nation's capital--unless, of course, you're Dick Cheney! I guess we can still call it the "FCC" Word.

Pete Walker said...

Well now.

I had come to understand "awe" as a more reverent sense of fascination. From the etymology you describe, including as it does the component of fear, I would have to say that I will now officially declare myself as a recovering user of both the terms "awesome" and the now-ubiquitous "F-bomb".

Unlike most casual F-bombers, however, I have an excuse for my use of the term: four years of enlisted service in the US Navy in the early 1970's. The combination of "yes, officer, I DID inhale" and the pervasive use of the F-word...I never really recovered from the trauma. Call it linguistic PTSD if you will.

While there are some situations in which there seems to be no other adequate expression of outrage or hyperbole, these terms come to mean mostly nothing, degrade the sensibility of ones speech, erode the credibility of the user, and so forth.

So hat's off to the both of you and Kevin Henry - the point is well made and well taken.