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Contemplating "awesome"

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January 19, 2014

Sometimes, good things come with bad things, such as getting a raise at work but having to work longer, or getting sand in uncomfortable places at the beach.

Latest case in point: An interesting website introduced by a word that has been flogged to death in the past 20 years.

The word is “awesome.” It comes from the word “awe,” of course, which describes a feeling. It's the feeling you get when you look up at a clear night sky, taking a pause from shoveling snow, and you see your breath rising towards the constellation Orion, and you imagine yourself being drawn up to one of those stars at the speed of thought, hurtling through the void of space.

It's the feeling you get when you contemplate The Infinite, God, or whatever you call That Thing that is so good, so wondrous, so powerful and so beyond comprehension.

The dictionary notes that awe is a mix of emotions that includes wonder and veneration but also fear and dread.

Point is, the threshold for using the word “awesome” should be high. Is the fact that your niece learned to tie her shoes awesome? Is Nathaniel's “A” on his science test awesome? Not in my book, unless these accomplishments came against exceedingly high odds and include the overcoming of massive handicaps.

It would be interesting to poll fifth-graders and ask them what they think “awesome” means. I imagine most would say “very good.” or “great.” In other words, they don't know the meaning of a word they hear almost every day.

Enough complaining. Here's an interesting web page that misuses “awesome” in order to introduce itself. It's on a site called nerdgraph.com, and it addresses one of my favorite topics, languages.

Are languages awesome? One might argue they are, because they reflect the great power and variety of the human brain, or a combination of human brains. We still don't know enough about language develops or how our brains work, and that element of the fascinating unknown is also a part of the meaning of “awesome.”



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