Once, on the road from Kano to Zaria (Nigeria), my travel companion and I came upon the scene of an accident. A lorry carrying an enormous load of dried fish had overturned, spilling its cargo onto the road and into an adjacent field. We got out to gawk. There was no driver and no policeman, only a wrecked lorry, a lot of dead fish, and a suffocating smell.
A Nigerian stopped just after us, got out of his car, and, surveying the pungent scene, exclaimed, It is wonderful! It is wonderful!
We said nothing, nodded goodbye, got into our vehicle, and headed quietly on our way. But, once we were out of earshot, my companion vented: How in the world could anyone with any sense say it is wonderful when it’s so obviously awful?
No, I ventured, I don’t think he was saying it’s exceedingly good. Simply that it is full of wonder. True, I was guessing, but I had heard enough Nigerian English to know that, in their creativity with the language, Nigerians sometimes deconstruct it, taking it back to what it once might have been.
(Thinking about this now, years later, I realize that the man could equally have said, It is awful, as in Full of awe, expressing the sentiment just as genuinely, but avoiding censure.)
Words and phrases can change their meaning rapidly, especially in our interconnected age. Though changes may leave the traditionalist nonplussed, not every change is for the worse.
Each generation, understandably, makes its mark on the language, sometimes with good effect. Cool, for example, expressed an attitude-shift decades ago by taking an existing word and giving it new life. Even though, today, it is close to qualifying for Social Security, cool apparently continues to satisfy new generations.
But not every change is for the better. This is especially the case with words that have a heightened emotional, almost religious, quality. If we have lost the wonder in wonderful and the awe in awful, we are left with fewer ways of expressing our reaction to what is mysterious and moving.
One word we do still have in that category is awesome. But it is rapidly slipping from the majestic and unknowable to the mundane and offhandedly meaningless.
Recently, at a local restaurant, I heard the death-rattle when a pleasant, and otherwise articulate, waiter asked if I was ready to order. I said, Yes, and he responded, Awesome. I would like to think that I have qualities that inspire so meaningful a response, but I think he was just saying OK.
God is awesome. A volcano is awesome. I am not, and my being ready to order my meal most certainly was not.
Of course, language changes, as our Nigerian traveler demonstrated. Not even a disciplined army of English teachers could defend the fortress, nor should they. The old gives way to the new, and lamenting the decline of a favorite word is, I admit, futile.
New words, and new usages, will come along to liven our language, just as awesome has (or had) for so long. Since it takes a long time for a new word to be reduced to non-meaning, I’d suggest gobsmack (literally, to smack in the mouth; figuratively, to amaze or startle), a salty Scots/English expression seldom heard in America and just odd enough to attract a following.
We’d have to come up with an adjective weighty enough to catch attention and rare enough to warrant adoption. We’ll leave that choice to the street. In a decade or two, don’t be surprised if, when you tell your waitperson you’re ready to order, she says, Gobsmacking!, which would be awesome!