The word “awesome” once meant inspiring extreme fear or dread. Nowadays it’s mostly used as a general purpose exclamation of approval.
Is “awesome” just an overused word for things we really like? Or does it refer to a particular kind of excellence? Would the world be a better place if we all tried to be more awesome and less sucky? This week, we’re thinking about awesomeness.
As an immigrant to this country, it seems to me that Americans love to call everything and anything “awesome.” Once upon a time, it used to mean inspiring fear or awe, but now it seems it’s just a word that tech bros and valley girls use for things they like.
Of course, just because a word once meant something in particular, it doesn’t follow that its meaning must remain static for all time. The meaning of words can and do change over time, and one word can have multiple meanings at the same time.
So, does “awesome” mean anything beyond a general expression of approval? One possibility is that it picks out a certain type of excellence. An awesome person is one who does something excellent that inspires great respect or admiration.
Take Elon Musk. No, please, take him!! Lots of people seem to think he and his space program are awesome. And they mean it in this new-fangled sense, as in very cool or most excellent. Going into space might inspire awe and so be awesome in the traditional sense. But is Musk awesome in this other sense for trying to [checks notes] colonize Mars? I personally don’t think so. But that’s not to say anyone who disagrees is confused or wrong about the meaning of the word. We just have different opinions.
Now if Musk were to spend some of his billions to end world hunger on Earth, instead of blowing it all on some narcissistic pipe dream on Mars, then I might consider calling him awesome. Certainly, ending world hunger would be awesome. It would be an extraordinary act that would benefit humanity.
Which leads me to wonder whether to be “awesome” we must help others, or be prosocial in some way. I recently watched a video of some men in India rescuing a snake that had gotten tied up in plastic netting that had gotten so tight, the snake was starting to suffocate. Despite the danger to themselves, the men got close to the hissing, biting snake and cut each piece of plastic till they eventually freed the snake. Now, that seemed like an awesome act to me, and anyone who would do such a thing deserves to be called awesome.
But if we reserve “awesome” for acts that benefit others in some significant way, then that would rule out a lot of other contemporary uses of the word. For example, could I make an awesome sandwich that I enjoyed all by myself? Imagine, a sandwich with the freshest bread, tomatoes sliced and salted to perfection, avocado at exactly the right moment of ripeness, crisp green lettuce. Is that just a very tasty, well-made sandwich, perhaps even an excellent sandwich, or could it be an awesome sandwich?
Our show this week is called “The Ethics of Awesomeness,” which does suggest that we should reserve the term for things that have some kind of ethical or social dimension. Our guest, Nick Riggle, author of On Being Awesome: A Unified Theory of How Not to Suck, argues that to be awesome is to create “social openings,” opportunities for others to express their own individuality.
One of Nick’s favorite examples of awesomeness is the guy in the video above, Jeremy Fry, who spontaneously launched into a lip-synching song and dance when the stadium cameras happened to land upon him. What made this an awesome act, according to Nick, is that Jeremy broke out of the usual social conventions in this creative way that drew others in and gave them an opportunity to participate in the fun.
So what do you think? Must awesomeness always involve others? And should we all try harder to suck less and be more awesome? Tune into this week’s show for what will be an awesome conversation with Nick.