Why David Sedaris Hates America’s Favorite Word, “Awesome”

David Sedaris has made his name as a humorist, not­ing the absur­di­ties of every­thing from life with his par­ents and sib­lings to the per­pet­u­al cycle of world trav­el and book-sign­ing into which fame has launched him. But as his long­time read­ers know, he’s real­ly a stu­dent of lan­guage: not only has his own voice on the page been shaped by close obser­va­tion of Eng­lish, he’s stud­ied and con­tin­ues to study a host of for­eign lan­guages as well. Long­time read­ers will remem­ber how much mate­r­i­al he got out of the French class­es that gave his book Me Talk Pret­ty One Day its title, and he has more recent­ly writ­ten of his strug­gles to get a han­dle on such diverse tongues as Ger­man, Japan­ese, and Slovene. (I myself wrote an essay about Sedaris’ lan­guage-learn­ing in the Los Ange­les Review of Books.)

Though he’s nev­er explic­it­ly cit­ed it as part of his writ­ing process, these stud­ies have clear­ly honed Sedaris’ ear for lan­guage in gen­er­al, espe­cial­ly when it comes to its local tics and eccen­tric­i­ties. “In France the most often used word is ‘con­ner­ie,’ which means ‘bull­shit,’ ” he says in the audio­book clip at the top of the post from his lat­est col­lec­tion Calyp­so, “and in Amer­i­ca it’s hands-down ‘awe­some,’ which has replaced ‘incred­i­ble,’ ‘good,’ and even ‘just OK.’ Pret­ty much every­thing that isn’t ter­ri­ble is awe­some in Amer­i­ca now.” What once denot­ed a sight or expe­ri­ence filled with the emo­tion of “dread, ven­er­a­tion, and won­der that is inspired by author­i­ty or by the sacred or sub­lime” has become, in Sedaris’ view, a syn­onym for “fine.”

“It just got out of hand to me,” Sedaris explains to USA Today. “Everything’s awe­some all the time. I was in Boul­der, Col­orado” — a city he has else­where described as “the ‘awe­some’ cap­i­tal” — “and some­one said, ‘I’ll have a dou­ble espres­so, awe­some,’ and the oth­er per­son said, ‘Awe­some.’ ”

(In anoth­er inter­view, he men­tions that he often fines peo­ple “a dol­lar a time at events for using the A‑word. I warn them first, because it’s only fair, but I can make pret­ty good mon­ey that way.”) This may sound like a futile objec­tion to inevitable lin­guis­tic change, but only to those who haven’t noticed the under­ly­ing debase­ment of mean­ing. If “awe­some” can now describe a cof­fee, what word, if any, indi­cates gen­uine awe?

A sim­i­lar fate has befall­en oth­er Eng­lish words and expres­sions. “Great” pre­ced­ed “awe­some” into the seman­tic haze, and “to beg the ques­tion” has become a stan­dard exam­ple of a phrase to whose orig­i­nal mean­ing only a pedant would cling. Peo­ple now often use it syn­ony­mous­ly with “rais­ing the ques­tion,” but if we accept that as its mean­ing, we’re left with no way to refer to ques­tion-beg­ging itself, a rhetor­i­cal prac­tice still as ram­pant as ever.  To crit­i­cize the mod­ern loos­en­ing of these usages is to keep sharp and com­plete one’s array of tools for expres­sion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion; we con­demn the overuse of a word not out of pure hatred but out of under­stand­ing the neces­si­ty of its true mean­ing. Even David Sedaris grants “awe­some” its prop­er time and place: “I went to the Great Wall of Chi­na once, and I have to say, that was awe­some. But that’s the only thing I can think of. Not a lat­te.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

20 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Sedaris: A Sam­pling of His Inim­itable Humor

David Sedaris Breaks Down His Writ­ing Process: Keep a Diary, Car­ry a Note­book, Read Out Loud, Aban­don Hope

David Fos­ter Wal­lace Cre­ates Lists of His Favorite Words: “Mau­gre,” “Taran­tism,” “Ruck,” “Prima­para” & More

Bertrand Rus­sell Lists His 20 Favorite Words in 1958 (and What Are Some of Yours?)

The Largest His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of Eng­lish Slang Now Free Online: Cov­ers 500 Years of the “Vul­gar Tongue”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

by | Permalink | Comments (11) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (11)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Pryor Lawson says:

    I’m glad I’m not around so many dum­mies that I’d think the cor­rect def­i­n­i­tion of “beg­ging the ques­tion” is “a phrase to whose orig­i­nal mean­ing only a pedant would cling.” Like­wise, I’m com­plete­ly with Sedaris on “awe­some.” His attack on the water­ing-down of that word is…great.

  • Ron Aslan says:

    I think David has lived in France too long. He’s become one of those cranky French peo­ple. Maybe Amer­i­cans should say bull­shit more often like the French.

  • Nick Fielden says:

    For­tu­nate­ly, here in Aus­tralia ‘awe­some’ is ‘trend­ing out’. You def­i­nite­ly hear it spo­ken less often nowa­days. How­ev­er, the ‘ver­bu­mis­tas’ will not be thwart­ed and they have quick­ly set­tled upon an awe­some replace­ment: ‘per­fect’.

    ‘Per­fect’ seems to arise most often in a ques­tion and answer con­text, where one under­goes an inter­ro­ga­tion. I was receiv­ing treat­ment in hos­pi­tal recent­ly and was ques­tioned by a young female nurse about whether I had expe­ri­enced any reac­tions to the med­ica­tion. She would enquire about things like, “Was your appetite affect­ed?’. I replied, “No, but I found the food I ate was taste­less”. The nurse’s imme­di­ate response was, “Per­fect”.

    I was pleased to know I had answered cor­rect­ly but, at the same time, was intrigued to know how I had appar­ent­ly achieved such a high lev­el of cor­rect­ness. Was my reply to the nurse’s enquiry real­ly ‘per­fect’? She told me it was just the answer she want­ed to hear. Awe­some.

  • Frank says:

    His sis­ter Amy turns me on but David just makes me think.

  • TOM EVANS says:

    OMG — loved lis­ten­ing to him, this read­ing from “Calp­so” was won­der­ful. He’s bril­liant!

  • Peggy says:

    Oh, I so agree! The catch phras­es can take you over the edge, espe­cial­ly for peo­ple who have the ear. I lis­tened to a pod­cast about sail­ing recent­ly where the catch word was GNARLY. Every­thing was “gnarly”. It was hard to fol­low the infor­ma­tion once you sens­es are over­whelmed.

  • Mark says:

    The use of “per­fect” by wait staff is so strange.

    “How is your meal?“the wait­ress asks. “Good,” I reply, “thanks.” “Per­fect!” she beams as she walks off with­out refill­ing my water glass.

    I said the meal was good, but no mere burg­er at a din­er is “per­fect.” God may be per­fect, but not sure about any­thing else in this tem­po­ral world.

    I have won­dered if it some­thing from their employ­ee eval­u­a­tion forms creep­ing into their speech.

  • IVAN HICKS says:

    John Mar­tin is an Artist whose work could be described as awe­some. BUT the oth­er big bad over used word is ENJOY Ivan Hicks.

  • IVAN HICKS says:

    My mes­sage is the oth­er word I hate is ENJOY

  • John says:


  • John says:

    Okay, Grumpy Man.

    “If ‘awe­some’ can now describe a cof­fee, what word, if any, indi­cates gen­uine awe?”

    How about glo­ri­ous, heav­en­ly, won­der­ful, sub­lime, gob­s­mack­ing, beau­ti­ful, love­ly, joy­ous, delight­ful, mind-blow­ing, awe-inspir­ing, won­drous, breath­tak­ing, stu­pe­fy­ing, mag­nif­i­cent.…? Shall I go on?

    I like ‘awesome’—it’s hap­pi­ly exclam­a­to­ry, like ‘farout’ or ‘cher­ry’ or ‘rad’ or ‘neato’. The Eng­lish lan­guage is fun (dare I say awe­some) Mr. Stick-up-your-butt.

    Have an awe­some day! 😂

    (You can have even more awe­some­ness by com­bin­ing adjec­tives, turn­ing one into an adverb: joy­ous­ly delight­ful, gob­s­mack­ing­ly beau­ti­ful, mag­nif­i­cent­ly breath­tak­ing, etc.)

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.