After recently adding a “subscribe” feature to my website, I discovered that WordPress’s initial form reply to people who sign up begins, “Howdy.” I like people who say “Howdy,” especially friends from places like Texas and California. But it isn’t me. It’s not how I greet people. Forcing us to use words that don’t necessarily fit our personalities is a symptom of how marketing dictates communication, so that what we say becomes what someone else thought.
I’m one of those tedious people who is overly sensitive to words. Take the adjectives that have appeared over the generations to express sincere appreciation. I vaguely remember “cool” from the jazz world of the late fifties, which became fashionable among teenagers in the late sixties, quieted down for a while, then went viral a decade or so later. During that time there have also been “fantastic,” “amazing” and more recently “awesome.”
I’ll focus on “awesome,” which irritates me even more than the other superlatives. “Awe” is a state of strong emotion we might feel on hearing a performance of “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s 9th. When someone suggests “Lunch at noon” and another replies, “Awesome,” I’m left wondering how an omelet could possibly compare to something as awe-inspiring as Beethoven’s famous anthem. As soon as a word is adopted for its ring of extra sincerity, it becomes just as meaningless as the words it replaced (“fantastic,” “amazing,” etc.).
Meanwhile, with the word “awesome” devalued, we flounder around for a substitute to voice true intensity of feeling. “Magnificent”? But that word suffered “awesome”’s fate long ago and now sounds pompous and old-fashioned.
Lately I wonder if “epic” is trying to do one better on “awesome.” “Epic” refers to a long and complex adventure poem or film, an accomplishment of large proportions. But I’ve heard it used to dramatize the speaker’s absolute conviction in the greatness of something that isn’t exactly epic, never mind awe-inspiring. Describing a cheap set of headphones or an item of costume jewelry as “epic” not only devalues the word, but also inadvertently mocks an item that might otherwise be admirable in its own right.
I was eight or nine when “fabulous” swept through England. I know because a magazine that started out then was called “Fabulous,” and I remember that because an early edition had a booklet of Beatles lyrics inside. I wanted that lyrics booklet badly and was frustrated to find the issue had sold out by the time I got to our news agent’s. Fortunately, a second run arrived and I got a copy. But I hated the magazine’s name and never bought another copy. Aggravating me even more, the magazine’s designers had picked up on the slang “fab,” and so printed the first three letters in a different color from the rest of the title.
My own word for the current manifestation of “awesome” is “great,” which long ago migrated from serious to frivolous in much the same way as “awesome” has. When I’m conscious of the parallel, I resort to “nice,” even though it has long been deemed insipid by people like me who obsess over words. But I try to say “nice” with an intonation that signals I’m not really as namby-pamby as you might think. In a similar spirit, a friend from the early seventies still says “dig it” for “I like it.” Knowing it’s beyond outdated, he says it with an amused emphasis that makes me laugh, even as I can tell he really means he likes whatever it is.
Then there’s “concerning,” which used to mean exclusively “about” or “involving.” Out of nowhere, it has come to mean “troubling.” For that meaning, we used to say “is a cause for concern.” Also, there were adjectives that served nicely as synonyms, besides “troubling”: “disturbing,” “worrisome,” “anxiety-provoking,” “distressing.” Each of these words has a gradation of meaning that seems lost in the newly prevalent “concerning.”
There’s another word whose evolution I feel fully justified in resisting. Today, people use “disinterested” as a synonym for “uninterested.” It isn’t just that nothing is gained by making two related words mean the same thing. When I was growing up, “disinterested” had the useful notion of “objective,” as in, “His view of the current crop of candidates is disinterested.” It indicated someone who could stand back and make an objective appraisal. But it felt less cold than “objective,” somehow suggesting they were still human.
I pay a price for this finickiness. When the word “concerning” pops into my head as I’m trying to express a thought, I get all tongue-tied because I can’t come up with “disturbing” or a more apt synonym. If “worrisome” comes to mind, I realize it sounds old-fashioned, so I can’t say that, either. While I’m wrestling with my vocabulary demons, the discussion has moved on and I don’t get to speak my mind.
I also pay a price as an immigrant from England. I’ve adopted most American vocabulary, spellings and pronunciations. I say the “a” in tomato as in “may,” even though it appalls our UK visitors, rather than as in “ah,” which sounds pretentious to American ears. But I still can’t say “gotten.” (The past participle form in England is plain “got.”) I grew up believing “gotten” was a really low form of speech, tantamount in effect, if not intent, to swearing. But it’s hard to get through life without the past participle of an everyday word.
I’m not completely stuck in my ways. Albeit reluctantly, I’ve adopted “they” for the third person singular to overcome the language’s inherent masculine bias. (“He or she” is tiresome.) I now use “access” as a verb, even though it was only a noun when I was growing up, because as a verb it saves me excess verbiage. Sometimes my verbal conservatism has been wrong-headed. I have a painful memory of arriving in America as a high school student and insisting on saying “Negro” at the very moment the word had become anathema to Americans.
So, what’s to be gained in criticizing new uses of old words? Language is ever evolving. It’s my problem, not the language’s. What matters is communication, right?
Except that is the problem: communication. If we blithely follow changes in the meanings of words, we risk letting language think for us instead of the language enabling us to speak for ourselves. How the zeitgeist’s words can manipulate us is the subject of George Orwell’s sadly timeless essay, “Politics and the English Language.” When we allow ourselves to be parrots of other people’s vocabulary, we become receptacles of their thoughts and stop letting our own thoughts germinate. Hence, to over-simplify maybe a little, the spread of fascism and communism in Orwell’s day, and today in America, right-wing extremism and political correctness.
I will keep on refusing to echo new usages of old words before I’ve given them time to make sense to me. And whatever happens, I will reserve “disinterested” for a quality I admire: the willingness to maintain a kind of humane detachment in the midst of roiling controversy.
So long, y’all.