This cartoon appeared in the L.A. Times’ comic section last week:
Dan Piraro’s comics have forever amused me, with a number of them actually gracing our refrigerator, despite my wife’s professed dislike of a cluttered fridge. I found it, to make the point of this post, “awesome”. Wow, that was profound, as adjectives go, no?
Admittedly, bringing Kate (shown below) was enough to engender a sense of “awe” in me, as I began to consider what becoming a father was about to entail.
But this post, despite the gratuitous baby photo is not about becoming a Dad…let’s get some things immediately out of the way. It’s about being in “awe” or finding something “awesome”. At various points during the early part of the school year, I will revisit this topic. But first off, definition time:
a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder : they gazed in awe at the small mountain of diamonds | the sight filled me with awe | his staff members are in awe of him.
• archaic capacity to inspire awe : is it any wonder that Christmas Eve has lost its awe?
verb [ trans. ] (usu. be awed)
inspire with awe : they were both awed by the vastness of the forest | [as adj. ] ( awed) he spoke in a hushed, awed whisper.
suffix forming adjectives meaning:
1 productive of : loathsome.
2 characterized by being : wholesome.
• apt to : tiresome.
extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear : the awesome power of the atomic bomb.
• informal extremely good; excellent : the band is truly awesome!
But it wasn’t just becoming a father that was the only thing in my life which caused me to feel truly “awed”.
The detached propeller of the Queen Mary was probably the first thing in my life that I can remember inspiring any sort of “awe” in me. I was probably 6 or 7 years old when I saw it, and I can still recall the chill I felt trying to comprehend the sheer size of it. These days, something that would engender a similar response would be something about the size of a B-52 bomber’s tail fin, like the one on display at the March Field Air Museum in Moreno Valley, that’s going to get the same sort of reverential reaction from me.
The fact that I can likely remember the few times I’ve seen something correctly described and defined as “awesome”, is enough to validate the point of the Bizarro cartoon.
UrbanDictionary.com has at least 18 separate webpages devoted to finding a definition to the word, with a number talking about how overused the word has become in our vocabulary.
The video, above, talks about how to construct an “awesome” button that will insert a random synonym into a document when the urge to use the adjective strikes a writer. This old column from a Portland, Oregon-based newspaper, hammers home a similar point about its overuse as well as how it’s infected the language as a result. This article tries to do exactly the opposite.
Ultimately, like so many things in the culture today, the overuse of a particular word, whether it be “awesome” or something else, (like another of my peeves “closure”), simply reflects a general sense of intellectual laziness with which we use the same words to describe just about anything. As a result, ordering a pizza, taking in a movie, staying up a bit later, sending the students out for early recess, among other things, are all described as “awesome”. In my experience in the classroom, I can generally tell which of my kids have had experience in the many after-school academies which dot the area around my school. The manner in which they use their 50-cent words are similar to how a number of their classmates don’t, simply because they don’t have it in their vocabulary. So, when a word like “awesome” arrives, or any of its more contemporary running mates, you can almost count on its overuse. The kids are copying what they hear. My little girl is no exception.
(To whit, when the Charlie Sheen story broke, no surprise from me to hear my preschooler traipsing about the house muttering the word “epic”.)
So in bringing this back to the original Dan Piraro cartoon, my job, when I hear my students overuse a limited vocabularly is to politely demand some clarity. While tongue-in-cheek overuses like “awesome” is one thing though, hearing other words like “gay” get abused is the unsettling component that worries me from an educator’s standpoint. The pressure is on to push for precision, not allow for the verbal shorthand, and to continue to stress that words shouldn’t be thrown away too lightly. As Katelyn reminds me from the back seat, she hears and repeats virtually everything. While many people she comes across will share with me how impressed they are by her vocabulary, I’ve got to make sure that how she’s using her rapidly increasing mental word bank fits the right situation. I don’t want to have to apply asterisks in order to understand her.