published Sunday, January 5th, 2014

Kennedy: Let's retire 'awesome'

Sometimes you think you have an original idea, but Google begs to differ.

For instance, I decided to start a New Year's movement to help stop the overuse of the word "awesome," but then I Googled the phrase: "overuse of the word 'awesome.'" My search returned more than a half-million matches, which tells me that others have come to a similar conclusion: "Awesome" is to modern English usage as fingernail clippings are to ice cream sprinkles.

Where I come from -- the outer rings of suburbia -- "awesome" is used as an all-purpose adjective, often forced into conversations with young children. They play "awesome" ball games, make "awesome" grades and generally exist in a state of "awesome" awesomeness. Our suburban Chattanooga toddlers are even capable of "awesome" trips to the potty.

Is it any wonder that our kids grow into young adults who lead the world in self-esteem but nothing else? It's not their fault, having from birth been so thoroughly -- and dare I say, awesomely -- brainwashed.

Strictly speaking, the only thing our children do that is actually awesome is to emerge, fully formed, from the birth canal. Other acceptable usages of the word "awesome" are when you first see the Grand Canyon or, say, you're getting a quick haircut and you unexpectedly get raptured.

"Awesome" has become so ubiquitous, it may be impossible to curb the habit. Some suburban moms seem to have it on the tip of the tongue, so every time they speak to their kids, "awesome" uncoils like a party horn: "Those McNuggets are awesome!"

Some use the "Jeopardy!" strategy, subconsciously working in more dubious usages of "awesome" in the form of a question.

"Wasn't little Callie an awesome bench-warmer today?"

"Won't it be awesome if Justin doesn't have to repeat third grade?"

For you playing along at home, the answers are, in order, "no" and "not really."

Ironically, "awesome" is a close cousin -- etymology-wise -- to "awful." Even the root word, "awe," carries connotations of fear and dread. Our common usage of "awesome" -- meaning extremely good -- paints a happy face on a word that was meant to convey something so daunting it might make you fall to your knees.

We probably shouldn't overthink this, though. The default to "awesome" in everyday language is really just laziness. English has a full toolkit of perfectly good words to convey encouragement and praise. To name a few: superb, outstanding, magnificent, exceptional, wonderful.

All too often, though, we use "awesome" to describe anything short of abject failure. What we need are those middle-tier words and phrases that come in handy when we don't need to over reach for praise. What about: OK, interesting, nice effort, not bad?

A lot of us grew up in an era when parental praise was not so effusive, so it's natural that we would want to express our happiness, even joy, about even the mundane events of our children's lives. Our kids make us happy, and so we reach for the compliment that we have at our fingertips.

If I might humbly suggest an alternative that might help you release that positive energy in another way. Simply put: If you're happy -- and you know it -- clap your hands.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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