Everything Is Awesome!
by Flynn Washburne, May 24, 2017
If you listen to a very old person talk long enough, and I mean real old, and of a disposition toward colorful slang, you might hear a particular bygone class of word pass their lips. This is pure speculation on my part, as I've not only never spoken to any extremely old people besides my grandmother, who was decidedly not slangy, but I've never heard any of these words used in conversation, save ironically or in a movie or TV production. Usually also ironically. Certain lowbrow examples of American literature are rife with them, and I might think them a purely literary construct with zero history of actual social currency if there weren't so danged many of them. I think maybe there was a faddish aspect to them in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they have lingered in the record as curiousities without being replaced by modern equivalents.
I'm talking about the kind of colorfully descriptive nouns used to denote things so amazing that nothing but complete nonsense will do them justice. Words like humdinger and lollapalooza and sockdolager. The kind of words Mickey Rooney would use to tell the judge about what he and the fellas were getting up to this weekend. If you don't know about Andy Hardy, don't be alarmed; he's before my time too, but I enjoy old movies. His was a recurring teenage character who got very excited about things.
Obviously Lollapalooza has survived as a trademarked music festival name, but that's about it. You just don't hear that kind of whiz-bang terminology any more, and I suspect that the cool kids and their desperate need to appear unaffected by anything in the post-Andy Hardy era are responsible. As arbiters of linguistic currency, they would surely scorn any term whose use would color them impressed. Hark as I compare two sets of temporally disparate young people following a natural disaster.
Modern Youth #1: Earthquake? Really? I mean, c'mon, Earth, can you do anything but quake?
Modern Youth #2: I know, right? Like, hello, been there, done that, ironically bought and wore the t-shirt to show how little I care. Please.
M.Y. #1 : Not that I care, and it's like whatever, but I think your leg is broken.
M.Y. #2: Gee, thanks, Dr. Obvious. Any more diagnoses?
M.Y.#1: Sor-ree. Do you want to like, go somewhere or something?
M.Y. #2: You mean like a hospital or wherever? Pph, I don't care, whatever.
Contrast this experience with that of a couple of young sports following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Old-Timey Youngster #1: Wow! That was a real sockdolager of a rumble!
Old-Timey Youngster #2: You're tellin' me! What a humdinger! And now the city is on fire! It's a real shake and bake, and no mistake!
O-TY#1: So it is! That gives me a real lulu of an idea! Say, I think your leg's busted!
O-TY#2: I think you're right! Boy, if that isn't a real jim-dandy of a fracture!
O-TY#1: We better go find us a sawbones to patch you up lickety-split, chum!
O-TY#2: Yessireebob! I know a real dilly of a doc down in the mission! Let's hope he hasn't been crushed or burnt up!
Obviously, the latter exchange is much more colorful and interesting, and these two gents are clearly preferable to the world-weary hipsters of modernity and their pathological need to remain coolly impassive in the face of absolutely anything. When exactly did enthusiasm become so uncool, anyhow?
I blame jazz.
It's not just the dearth of ripsnortin' nonsense nouns that has weakened and sanitized the language, it's that the number of positively-skewing adjectives designed to designate something as pleasing or desirable has boiled down to exactly one, and that word is awesome. I don't mean it's an awesome word, because it's totally not, I mean that 'awesome' is the word. Everything is awesome, from the bus arriving on time to a galaxy-destroying supernova. The following is an actual verbatim exchange I recently overheard.
Curious Person: Pardon me, do you have the time?
Watch Wearer: It's twenty to three.
C.P. Awesome, thanks.
Here are a couple of things which are decidely not awesome. One is any given moment of the day. Every designated second has repeated in every 24-hour cycle since Man first began splitting the day into discrete segments, and will continue to do so as long as we are around to record them. If you miss 10:27:06 AM, fear not; it'll be back tomorrow. What's more, it is indistinguishable from the minutes flanking it. In relation to the other 1,439 minutes of the day, any particular minute is the exact opposite of awesome, i.e., completely unremarkable.
Another is a stranger providing the time. In the 50 or so years since I began to notice or care what time it was, I have asked the time of perhaps a thousand people and never been turned down once. I can recall a couple instances of apologetic explanations of watches stopped or broken, and once mistaking a decorative leather wristband for a watch, but no one has ever flatly refused me. The point is, receiving the time is not awesome, but totally humdrum. As favors go, it is a minuscule step above not stepping on someone.
Now, if you were to ask someone for the time and they said, "Here! Take my Rolex!" — now, that would be awesome.
I am not one of those hidebound traditionalists in the matter of language who weep, wail, and gnash their teeth every time the kids appropriate and repurpose venerable old words to create fresh and exciting neologisms. I appreciate that English is a living, evolving language and we should embrace and incorporate the modifications as reflective of our diversity, adaptability, and creativity. I am fine with, for instance, the adjectivification of “dope” and “fly.” I just think that maybe “awesome” has taken on a little too much and is liable to collapse beneath the weight of its own awesome responsibilities. I cannot help but visualize a sad future in which some poor post-millennial, who, upon witnessing the green flash as the sun dips below the ocean's horizon, or the birth of a hippopotamus, or a speeding locomotive loaded with truck parts crashing into a flying saucer, says, "Whoa. If only there were some word capable of capturing the majesty and grandeur of what I just witnessed."
Well, there was, Jaden. There was.
Every generation has its own terms to describe things that are not wacked and a few of them survive into the next unchanged. “Cool,” probably the hardiest and longest-lived example, has lost most of its oomph and survives mostly as a term of assent or approval. Interestingly, it can have an opposite meaning with the addition of the first-person singular present indicative being if someone asks you if you want, say, more coffee, “cool” means “yes please,”' while “I'm cool” means “no thank you.”
When I first acquired enough linguistic expressiveness to pepper my conversation with slangily judgmental terminology, the terms of currency of the time (mid-late 60s) and place (small-town Nor-Cal, specifically, Felton) were “neato,” bitchin' , and “boss.” We, and I suspect this was a finely localized phenomenon and limited to Mrs. Becker's 3rd-grade class, had a variant of '”boss” in which one guy would say, "Boss!", and another would respond, "Bossa-nova!" and the first guy would answer back, "Bossa-nova-mendocino!", and we'd slap five. I'm thinking about bringing that one back.
After Felton I was thrust into a racially diverse midwestern inner-city environment and adopted “bad” as my principal descriptor. Degrees of badness, which was actually goodness, were expressed via attenuation, so something especially awesome was “ba-a-a-a-ad.” I also followed the local custom of depluralizing the collective fractions of a dollar — thutty cent, fohty cent, fitty cent — much to my mother's horror.
After that it was off to whitebread suburbia, where I began smoking pot and everything became “far out.” I think maybe the only person in America who still uses that phrase and means it is Bob Weir. Maybe some of the AVA' s readership.
As I grew, I followed the usual linguistic trends, enjoying the rad and gnarly 80s and the sick, sweet, dope-ass 90s. Now, of course, everything is awesome. I'm as guilty as everyone else of perpetuating this catchall, being very weak and susceptible in the matter of oral communication. After 10 minutes of conversation with someone I will start to take on their accents and verbal distinctions, and as a result have to explain that no, I'm not making fun of them. It's just a form of chameleonism. Even so, you can be fairly certain that I will never, but never, describe something as being “on gleek.” There are limits.