A strange thing has happened to American English over the past decade: The adjectives seem to have swelled way out of proportion displacing everything else in our sentences, including substance. You know, words like awesome, intense, epic, insane, amazing, etc… While we’re at it why not mention the declaratives like “absolutely” and “totally”? It’s not surprising if you consider the context. America today is a country where moderation in any form is equated with weakness. Why would our descriptors be exempt?
In this era of hyper-enthusiastic expression, anyone who fails to over-inflate their adjectives and declaratives runs the risk of sounding reasonable. That’s enough to raise suspicion in a linguistic ecosystem where its possible to circumvent original thought, considered opinion and sincere reaction altogether and still function socially (not to mention politically). Why bother thinking when you can just blurt out “awesome” in response to, well, pretty much everything that happens to you? It’s like cruise control for your brain.
I’ve noticed the most prolific users of these words tend to utter them purposefully. They know these super-sized declaratives are overused. They also understand that to some people, albeit a minority, uttering these phrases is the verbal equivalent of squirting milk out of your nose at a dinner party. But that doesn’t deter them. In fact it seems to embolden them. Like a secret handshake of the trite, they use these words to signal their membership in the club and gain easy acceptance.
To help amp up our language further, the F-word has been brought in out of the cold. The earliest use of the word has been traced back to an English Court case in the year 1310. However, the word remained under the radar for almost 700 years, used liberally in private but rarely in public and never in media. Today, this relic has been hauled into the mainstream by gabby hoards of late adopters who appropriated it to craft their online prattle and personas. Since I can’t even bring myself to put the word on paper, I’m beginning to feel decidedly pre-millennial.
I fondly remember when the F-word was a swear-of-last-resort (topped only by the C-word). The word had real stopping power back then. But writers began over-using it, mostly for shock value. When that was worn out, they began using it to be edgy. We’ve passed that now as well. Today, casual use of the F-word seems to be the only way to self identify as being unaffected, particularly among people who fret about how affected they appear. But I miss the raw power of the word formerly known as the F-word. I think recent generations have squandered this precious national resource by recklessly tossing it onto the dysphemism treadmill. Today the F-word is some sort of watered down, worn out, wine bar version of its former self. And don’t get me started on friggen, fricken or frack.
None of this is news to anyone who is subjected to American English on a regular basis. But a quote I read today from C.S. Lewis made me reflect. He cautioned: “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say infinitely when you mean very; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”
I get it. Language is in a constant state of flux. Linguistic trends ebb and flow like the tides. And like the tides, it serves a purpose and is foolish to resist. Words get overused, worn out then are retired or change their meanings entirely. As Mental Floss points out, “terrific” used to mean “terror-inducing” but was so often used ironically it now means “very good”. Who knows, a few years from now “insane” may no longer refer to a mental condition. It will probably be synonymous with “brilliant”. The F-word will feature prominently in nursery rhymes and mother’s day cards. But I hope we have some good words left in the slim chance that something truly awe-inspiring does happen.
In the meantime, if the mind-numbing din of these hollow sentiments is eroding your faith in humanity (or at least vocabulary) you may take some solace in recent data from Google Trends. According to the search engine, after seven solid years of growth the word “awesome” finally peaked in February of 2014 and has since been in decline. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of those who abuse it. They are, no doubt, feverishly scanning thesauruses and rap lyrics to find new words to ruin as part of their secret handshake. Awesome.