The death of Awesome

I was sitting in a share-auto in Chennai (a delightful concept to the Bangalorean who has had one argument too many with auto-drivers who can sometimes change their mind mid-journey – “Make it meter mele 20, madam”!!), when I noticed a billboard proudly yelling as it asked for all my attention. Now, being in India, it isn’t rare to see pictures of a batsman hitting away at a ball that seemed to have provoked his dark side. So, coming to the point, written on this larger-than-necessary-for-a-highway billboard were the words ‘IPL – It’s awesome’.

Now, no offence to all cricket-lovers (I know better than to offend 1 billion and more people), but this just made me think. Awesome? Is it, really? Well, probably yes, for some people, but let me tell you why that makes me cringe.

A few years ago, or maybe more than a few years ago….I remember my brief encounters with the word awesome. One of the earliest was when we sang the hymn – “How great Thou art” in church.

O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made.
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Written in 1886, this hymn goes on to describe beautifully the wonders of nature and creation.
And when I heard it, it was etched in my mind that this word awesome was to be used for things that take your breath away, that are worthy of awe. The Grand Canyon. The Taj Mahal. The mighty sea, or a waterfall that makes you feel really small. The arresting voice of a singer. The way our body works.

Now, I do understand we don’t live in 1886 anymore, but don’t we hear this word much too often these days? Is it that our wonder is now reserved for things immediate and temporary, or has the word lost its true meaning somewhere in its journey from written to spoken to easily uttered.

“I just forwarded that mail you wanted.”
“Awesome. Thanks!”

“My new pair of shoes are so awesome!”

“This joke I heard was just awesome!”

I’m pretty sure that poor ‘awesome’ is not the only word bearing the brunt of losing what she started out meaning, and I’m not so sure she will find her true identity again. But for knowing her as I did, in a hymn and in nature and in moments of pure wonder…I think she deserves a moment of recognition and consideration.

[ Please note that is honest to break it to me that this weakened colloquial version of ‘awesome’ has been in vogue from the 1980s, though it doesn’t exactly tell me who is to blame!]