Awesome he said when I gave him my name and awesome
again when I verified my address. One more awesome and I’m canceling my order and hanging up, said I. Your hyperbole offends me, I told him. It does violence to my ear. There’s nothing awesome about anything I said. Save the word. Stick it in your wall safe. Try to go through your day without using it. That would be awesome. Cool, he promised.
Strange how some words travel across the entire spectrum. Terror long ago became terrific which you would never use to suggest fear. But there may still be time to salvage awe.
Awe was cousin to reverence. It was evoked by the sacred. Awe accompanied an epiphany. It describes the sublime. It is the language of our discourse with the unknown. Awe is the last word before the inarticulate.
Awesome is an exclamation reserved for my first sight of Van Gogh’s Iris vibrating off the wall in Amsterdam or Paul Robeson’s bass-baritone voice shattering my glass anatomy. Awesome is Peggy, robust at 97. It is the Grand Canyon, the redwood forest, the pictographs at Chauvet, the amaze of the Gehry-Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as we turned the corner to our astonished eyes or the words on the page of a certain Wallace Stevens poem which knock my unmatched socks off.
Awe morphed into awful as if it contained some nasty seed for mischief. Now we have Shock and Awe describing what happens when a village is bombed to smithereens in a manner designed to break the opposition's will. I suppose Hiroshima was that instance of terrible beauty that Rilke and Yeats referenced and awesome was the mushroom cloud as we witnessed the instrument for planetary suicide. With Beauty now discarded we have accepted the demotic into the notion of grandeur.
I can accept this negative awe for its proximity to something both numinous and destructive surpassing all else but not the debasement of the word to describe my name and address. Certain words deserve special handling as they travel across millennia. Yes, I know language is organic, growing wild outside the garden wall. It is what everyone says it is. And yet…
The problem is that to dispense awesome in a casual way is to debase it, to assign it to the garbage pail of exhausted words. It needs to be earned. We need to conserve certain language for our vocabulary of wonderment. Without it we are bereft. In these times of bereavement as Trump has raided our glossary with his third grade grasp of superlatives we have to at least protest against the theft of awe. The damage he has done to our democracy is the equivalent of a nuclear bomb but I wouldn't waste the word awesome on him.