November 1, 2014

Awe Gone


The word “unbelievable” has lost all force. That's why the kiddies and their adult imitators invented the word awesome. -- Commentor BillH, 2014

Moments of real awe that overwhelm the soul are rare, but if you look closely at the miracle of creation in the macro or micro cosmos you can create such a moment almost at will. Real awe is front-loaded into the universe.

At the same time, those things of man that inspire awe diminish moment by moment under the unstoppable onslaught of the word "awesome." The descent of the word "awesome" from a valuable modifier when describing an experience to the status of a brain fart is a classic example of how our "educated" illiterates destroy literacy.

I've had a few moments in my life where genuine awe shook me to the roots of my soul. Holding my daughter in my arms a moment after she was born comes to mind as does a time when I was very young, lying a field and looking up at the sky and the high cirrus glowing burnt orange in the fading rays of day. There were others as well, gifts given and grace notes. Common to all were an intake of breath and a feeling as if your heart had been grazed by a thought of God and forgot, for that moment, to beat. Matched up against all the torrent and cascade of moments though, this genuine awe was rare; it was one of the pearls beyond price, the shining instant of "Ah ha, so that's what it's all about."

Not so today. Today awe is as common as clay. Today all things of man possesses the awe of someness. The movie is awesome. The SmartCar is awesome. The candy bar is awesome. The cheeseburger is awesome. Today it would seem that every slice of tripe spun out of the crap factories of pop culture is awesome even though one note of the 9th Symphony would crush the entire oeuvre of Arrowsmith. My morning latte was described by the barrista as "awesome" when, like all our cornucopia of crapulous things described as such, it was quite mediocre, thank you.

I'm not sure when "awesome" died, but it was sometime in the very late, not-so-great, 20th century. You'd think it would be mummified by now, but no. Whenever someone so forgets to drive their mouth responsibly that the word "awesome" emerges it carries with it the stench of that slaughterhouse where perfectly good words go to die.

In a time when moments of true awe are needed to slake the parched post-modern lost souls, the intense trivialization of awe by the neutered generation is awesome.

Posted by Vanderleun at November 1, 2014 1:01 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Just another word, used and abused. When I was a kid, the word awesome was just as prevalent as it is today. It died off for a while, but like everything else without real meaning, managed to come right back.

It is best we just let the awesomes be awesome, and keep the really good things off of the iPhone app lists so we can cherish them as we should.

Posted by: Andy at July 7, 2010 10:50 AM

You're cranky today, aren't you?

That's okay, Gerard, as I posted this on my Facebook. Way funny, man.

Posted by: cond0010 at July 7, 2010 10:58 AM

First memorable encounter with awe: After moving to Tacoma from flat Kansas, my brother and I went across the street to the park (after a long rain) and got our first view of Mt. Rainier. We didn't know the name of the mountain, but we stared at it for a long time before we asked another kid what the name of the mountain was. He looked at us as though we were from Mars. His older (and wiser) sister said, "They've never seen a mountain before. How would you act if you never saw a mountain before?"

Posted by: Jewel at July 7, 2010 11:10 AM

Awesome post!

Posted by: Gagdad Bob at July 7, 2010 12:40 PM

Dear Bob,
Off is the direction in which you need to fuck.

Posted by: vanderleun at July 7, 2010 1:09 PM

The two most "awesome" events of my life, although I call them majestic rather than awesome, were standing at the edge of a very high cliff in the Rocky Mountains when an eagle flew past me at eye level and I had this feeling of connection as he looked me directly in the eye. It was a purely personal experience that I treasure and had no desire to share. Reliving that experience, even years later, still gives me chills. The other was on the deck of a cruise ship very late at night. I had this sense of being one with the universe and the stars looked like I could just reach out and pick them out of the stars. I was so overwhelmed with the beauty, tears flowed. My only regret on the 2nd experience was not having someone with me to share the moment.

Posted by: Sara (Pal2Pal) at July 7, 2010 1:15 PM

I hear you about the difference between rock music and classical (although the best of rock musicians are real artists) but there are always exceptions.

Many years ago (depressingly many) I was attending the leaving party after the final exams at my university. The particular part I was attending was arranged into several quadrangles surrounded by raised walkways. The partygoers were dancing in one of the quadrangles to Led Zeppelin (yes, it was that long ago) and one of their better tracks was playing. And then the extra bass track and light show started. Ten miles or so away over a flat plain, a lightning storm started up.

The best of Led Zeppelin with Thor on drums. Yes, awesome.

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at July 7, 2010 2:14 PM

Needs a lightning storm to rise to that level, what?

Posted by: vanderleun at July 7, 2010 3:46 PM

There's awesome.. and then there's AWESOME.. it takes maturity to appreciate the difference, and even then, unless we are exceptionally gifted in our youth, it only comes to us in retrospect. It's what we mean by "If I only knew then what I know now". And, for me, anyway, it's one of the few things that makes middle age bearable! When I feel invisible because my beauty has faded, when I feel like an underappreaciated wife and/or mom.. it gives me comfort. It's not reflecting that comforts me, but rather, the ability to connect the truly awesome moments into a life that was worth living. That is comforting.

Posted by: Red Carolina at July 8, 2010 5:34 AM

It's just a word.
The moments still exist.

Posted by: David McKinnis at July 8, 2010 7:07 AM

Tocqueville's stand-alone fear for democratic republics was not that mediocrity would become commonplace, but enforced. After people worked so long to shake off their distinguishing characteristics they would be annoyed by any deviation from their sameness. "Philosophic systems that destroy human individuality will have secret attractions for men who live in a democracy."

To be exceptional is to be anti-social. The modern democratic man cannot relate to a thing that does not represent his mediocrity. Musicians, politicians, and even poets all know how to turn tricks for him.

Imagine all the people,living for today, nothing to kill or die for, stoned in the democratic way. Awefulsome.

Posted by: james wilson at July 8, 2010 8:51 AM

Two truly awsome events in my life:

1) My first woman, standing before me barenekkid

2) Both Shuttle launches I witnessed on site, from the press viewing area

While #1 was a lot quieter (at first) than the Shuttles, there was a great rushing noise in my head (I think it was my head)

Posted by: Don Rodrigo at July 8, 2010 2:45 PM

Looks like you and my eleven year old are on the same page. His little brother popped off an awesome two days ago, the boy responded by telling him the word was over used and had become entirely meaningless.

Either he's a an old curmudgeonly soul or you're still very young at heart.

Posted by: Daphne at July 9, 2010 5:14 AM

"That's Awesome man" is a sympton of a complete inability to make reasonable distinction or rankings of various events. People will use it to describe events as diverse as hearing that Flea wore a sock on his penis at the latest Chili Peppers gig to hearing that Tokyo was just hit bu a 300 ft tsunami. In both cases you'll hear the same thing

"Dude, that's awesome."

Posted by: Call me Lennie at July 9, 2010 6:27 PM

As a child I figured out that it was more important to say something with style or enthusiasm than it was to say something accurately.

I expect nothing more of the host than to impotently whine about this truism, like I did as an angsty teen.

Posted by: easyliving1 at July 11, 2010 6:16 PM

14 years ago, the the very end of a trip through New Zealand and Figi, we were picked up on the far side of a Fiji island at 4:30 am. The van driver was a huge, strong Fijian, who, as he carried my bags through the dark, asked me if I had seen the Southern Cross. He then directed my eyes toward a sky so full of stars, that I became overcome. I had been there 12 days, and had never once, looked up. Awe.

Posted by: Leslie at December 1, 2011 3:36 PM

For my part, I probably do use it too much, especially online, but that's because the people whose posts I read tend to leave me, well, awed.

That said, the phasing out of "awesome" wouldn't be so bad, provided there was a good and unsaturated word at hand (or tongue-tip) to convey what it originally meant. There are many perfectly good synonyms, of course, but none of them spring so readily (to my mind, anyway) to the fore when other words fail.

That said, probably the most awe-ful moment for me in recent years was Ash Wednesday, 2010, when I attended a church service and lined up to receive the ashes. And even "awe" in its deepest sense doesn't begin to touch that one, but again it seems all that I have.

Posted by: Julie at December 1, 2011 5:47 PM

A "definitive" definition of the word may be found at Urban Dictionary.
"3. awesome 1393 up, 955 down
A 'sticking plaster' word used by Americans to cover over the huge gaps in their vocabulary. It is one the three words which make up most American sentances.
The American vocabulary consists of just three words: Omygod, awesome and shit."
Yeah, sentances ... probably a new word.

Posted by: DeAnn at December 1, 2011 5:50 PM

I dunno. I still think 'awesome' is appropriate for the time I realized I was mortal.

Posted by: Pappy at December 1, 2011 6:22 PM

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. - Great God! I'd rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn,
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Posted by: Fat Man at December 1, 2011 7:00 PM

What was it about last night? It was as though I was visited by angels, by angelic meditations, by heavenly revelations of freedom from fear. I was pulled through a portal of understanding heretofore closed to me. I knew that I knew something more. I was elevated to a higher plane. It stayed with me throughout the day, revisited me with a shooting star just a while ago, and I know it will stay me in the darkest hours.

The Awe comes to us, I know not how. I'm just glad to be poor enough in spirit to drink it in and enjoy it.

Posted by: Joan of Argghh! at December 1, 2011 7:07 PM

These are the sort of posts that set this blog apart from the others. If I could get people to do one thing it would be to turn off the "news" and take time to learn and to think. I promise if something big happens the media world will kick down your door and tell you about the big thing.

Like this post from Gerard, step back from the hurricane of information and look at it all. Don't confuse having paid professional talkers and writers flood you with their work with learning about the world. It won't do you any good to know the latest detail of what's in the news, but it might save your life to understand 1% better before you go.

Posted by: Scott M at December 2, 2011 3:12 AM

What an awesome post, including especially the comments, & have an AWESOME weekend. >

Posted by: Mel Bowling at December 2, 2011 8:19 AM

Why is it that, if you have SOME awe, you're awesome. but if you're FULL of awe, you're awful?????

Posted by: Hangtown Bob at December 3, 2011 6:23 AM

Amazing post.

Posted by: Cletus Socrates at August 11, 2013 11:28 AM

I think the problem with "awesome" reflects the complete inability of the younger set to discriminate, to rank one thing over another, to understand that some things carry more weight than other things. Consider the following exchange

"Dude, you hear about the 10.0 earthquake that just sent a 100 ft tsunami into Tokyo and probably killed 30 million people?"

"Dude, that's awesome! Oh, did I tell you, I went to a Chili Peppers concert last night and Flea was playing bass with just a sock on his dick."

"Dude, that's awesome!!"

I rest my case

Posted by: Callmelennie at November 1, 2014 7:48 AM

It feels awful to have been so thoroughly one-uped, and four years ago at that. Even worse on a cold Saturday morning.

Posted by: BillH at November 1, 2014 7:57 AM

Both astonishing and marvelous,
a child's first words,
Ma and No.

Posted by: Howard Nelson at November 1, 2014 2:45 PM

"Amazing" is even worse than "awesome."

Posted by: Andy Texan at November 1, 2014 7:56 PM

Fair warning:

After spending time with a few 20 ish Californians, it would appear that, due to syntactic inflation, that which is past "awesome", which is basically anything, would be labeled

"Insane!". Prepare to hear way,way too much of this next.

Posted by: Flannelputz at November 2, 2014 9:23 PM