Thursday, November 14, 2013

Remembering "Awesome"

I was twelve years old when I first saw Niagara Falls. I remember looking out at the water crashing over Horseshoe Falls and thinking that for the first time, I truly understood what "awesome" meant. The value of that discovery was short-lived, though; within a few years, "awesome" would have evolved into a designation for a new ice cream flavor, a solid test score or a plan to meet up after school.

It nagged at me from the beginning, the loss of that word. Though I'm something of a preservationist, I'm also a fan of clear communication. I do understand that the commonly accepted meanings of words sometimes evolve, and sometimes that serves a societal purpose. Sometimes, it does not.

"Awesome" was converted from a word with a unique meaning that conveyed something powerful into a shorthand reaction interchangeable with a dozen (or more) other words--and we no longer had a single word to clearly convey what "awesome" once meant. Sure, we can find workarounds--say "awe inspiring," for instance. But we had a perfectly good word for that, and it got broken.

I've been thinking about that word again recently, since general misuse and the gatekeepers of our vocabulary joined forces to steal "literally" from the English language. In essence, the word has been redefined to mean, "literally" or "not literally." Which, of course, means that it conveys nothing at all. It's as if we've decided that the word "warm" now means either "warm" or "cold"--at the user's discretion and without any designated context to help determine which opposing thing the speaker is trying to convey.

However language evolutionists might argue that updating the meaning of words aids in clear communication, the type of updating we're engaged in today does no such thing. Rather, it creates a rule of thumb that says that words don't actually have to mean a particular thing, and that a person speaking that word might mean anything at all. For example, she might mean "literally," or she might mean "figuratively."

Meanwhile, we've lost the use of a perfectly good word that made a clear and important distinction. The old "literally" served a purpose; the new one, by virtue of its conflicting meanings, cannot. And, once again, we'll have to find a multi-word workaround to express what "literally" used to say with crystal clarity.

Apparently, we've also redefined "evolution of language" to include "devolution of language."