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.”
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.