Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Rise and Reign of Awesome

Some slang terms come and go. This is the story of the one that wouldn’t die.

In the early 1960s, a new faction of counter-culture began to emerge. This was an era of youth in revolt who were actively seeking to reject everything their parents stood for. They adopted radically different clothing, music, and philosophies; they experimented with substances, new and old; but very much like every generation before them, they developed their own slang terminology.

Slang has always been a way for the youth to stay one step ahead of the older generations, a sort of “code language” so that information can be passed between the young while leaving everyone else completely ignorant. When those slang terms begin to be used by the older generations, they tend to die off. This is partially because the code is no longer secret, but it’s also because no one wants to hear this stuff coming out of their parents’ mouths.

So when the word “awesome” took on an altered definition during the cultural revolution, it was no surprise. Its new meaning was very similar to the previous centuries-old use, but with a youthful approach: Instead of meaning “profoundly awe inspiring,” it was basically reduced to a casual, “impressive,” or “very good.” Teens and young adults across the United States adopted this new sense for the word and used it liberally—sometimes merely as an interjection.

By the early 1980s, “awesome” was still being used by younger and older generations alike. It had outlived the lifespan of the typical slang term, but rather than seeing a reduction in use, it maintained a more-or-less steady existence in the lexicon of the American public. However, as this decade rolled forth, the word grew. It became the go-to term for seeming youthful and cool and selling everything related to 80s culture.

The more bizarre or re-defined a slang term is, the shorter its lifespan. This is why nonsensical words like “gadzooks” never last. It’s why “rufus” from Never Been Kissed didn’t actually catch on. But it’s also why words like “radical,” and “tubular” died off in the 1980s (both sharing a slang definition with “awesome,” but with the former’s actual meaning being “deviating from the norm,” and the latter meaning, “tube-shaped.”) The startling longevity of “awesome” can be entirely attributed to its adoption as a slang term that actually means what it says.

When the 90s arrived, no one actually expected it to disappear. It was a tried-and-true descriptor that began to take shape for use in ironic situations and casual conversation. It was no longer something that anyone paid attention to; rather, it was just a normal component of speech. It seemingly graduated from slang to proper language.

However, something spectacular happened within the past few years. From its steady use through the previous two decades, “awesome” suddenly began to grow again. Starting in early 2008, the word began to pop up with increasing frequency. By 2010, the word was experiencing incredible growth in popularity. Social networking most likely played a large part in this, but there’s something more here: Awesome became a philosophy.

The word became the definition for a worldview in which certain objects, experiences, or individuals feature a significant level or combination of positive excess, power, unattainability, rarity, and/or supernaturality. Countless images popped up across the Internet depicting the visual descriptions of what “awesome” is, and then marketing agencies caught on and began utilizing the viewpoint to sell their products to a young demographic. Here’s a few examples of “awesome” in marketing, starting with the Old Spice guy commercial series:

Taking a cue from the success of these ads, Dairy Queen began pushing their own similar commercials featuring the, uh, Dairy Queen guy:

Both commercials reek of a specific brand of attitude and combine an over-the-top situation to imply that their product is, of course, “awesome.” Here's another one, which proudly proclaims its awesomeness in explicit terms:

 This trend’s not going away any time soon, if Google Trends is a good indicator:

It looks like we might just be in another burst of activity in the lifespan of this word, but it’s not going away any time soon. We can love it, lament it, or ignore it, but the fact remains that it’s an integral part of our culture at this point. However, I’d avoid overusing it if I were you, because there are dozens of perfectly appropriate synonyms just waiting for their chance to describe your experiences.


  1. This is awesome.

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