10 – Awesome! Amazing! Epic! – diluted adjectives
Like little pebbles in a stream, words get worn down with age; the more we use them, the less they come to resemble their original meanings. This is not to say we need to protect words from overuse or misuse – language is not owned by anyone, and the Oxford Dictionaries describe changing attitudes to words, rather than attempt to govern how we use language. But there is still pleasure to be found in exploring some of our most commonly and casually used words, especially our ‘diluted’ adjectives – the words we use on an almost daily basis to describe people, objects, events and occurrences that we encounter, and which lose some of the strength of their original meanings. Here’s a short list of the fuller definitions behind some of our favourite adjectives.
Let’s start with a word that is currently in very popular use, the adjective ‘incredible’. ‘Incredible’ has three main meanings. It is popularly used to describe something extremely good or great, especially in size or scale: ‘the party was incredibly good fun’; ‘that’s incredible news!’. But the word itself stems from ‘credibility’, the extent to which something can be believed. Its true meanings, therefore, are the strong one – not credible, cannot be believed, beyond belief – or the weaker one, which is closer to the popular use – difficult to believe, hard to realize.
‘Wonderful’ is similar to ‘incredible’. It means, quite literally, ‘full of wonder’, and describes when either an object inspires in us feelings of excitement or astonishment, or when we ourselves feel those sensations and are moved into a state of wonder. The Oxford English Dictionary also notes the ‘trivial’ use of the word to suggest something that is just ‘surprisingly large, fine, excellent’.
‘Marvellous’ is a close synonym of ‘wonderful’, and means ‘to excite wonder or astonishment; surprising; having extraordinary (as if supernatural) properties’. This last definition means it can be applied to apparently mystical experiences; the OED quotes Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan for a sense of this meaning: ‘Miracles are Marvellous workes: but that which is marvellous to one, may not be so to another’. In its weakened state, though, ‘marvellous’ means simply ‘extremely good or pleasing’.
On the theme of the supernatural, let’s look at the word ‘awesome’. ‘Awesome’ means (or meant) ‘full of awe’ and is defined as ‘profoundly reverential; appalling, dreadful, weird’. This might seem like a strange mix of characteristics, between what we now call ‘awful’ things and apparently religious or reverential experiences. This can be explained with reference to the related concept of the ‘sublime’: the ‘sublime’ is an experience of very large, potentially dangerous things (like a craggy cliff-face or a mighty storm) that remind us of our insignificance in the world, and how large and powerful the universe is. The OED quotes Edmund Burke’s famous book on the Sublime and the Beautiful of 1757 for an example of ‘awe’: ‘Astonishment; the subordinate degrees are awe, reverence, and respect’. This is quite a long way away from how ‘awesome’ is used now, especially in American TV shows: ‘overwhelming, staggering; great, stunning’.
The word ‘fantastic’ is also one that come to mean ‘excellent, good beyond expectation’. This seems to be especially the case within professional contexts; imagine a shop assistant replying with ‘fantastic’ when you produce a loyalty card, for example. But the word actually means ‘pertaining to fantasy’: ‘existing only in imagination; proceeding merely from imagination; fabulous, imaginary, unreal; fanciful’.
‘Fantastic’ leads us straight to ‘fabulous’, a word the OED tells us is, in its weakened state, often used as a synonym for ‘terrific’ or ‘marvellous’ – especially when it’s shortened to ‘fab’. Actually, it refers to anything relating to a fable or story (think of it as ‘fable-ous’). This could include a ‘fabulous’ author (meaning an author of fables) or a reader of their works; the events or characters of a fable; or real-life events or people that seem as if they are straight out of a work of fiction. To judge something ‘fabulous’, therefore, does not necessarily mean it is good.
Another literary word that has strayed far from its original meaning is ‘epic’. The OED chiefly defines epic as ‘a poem, typically derived from ancient oral tradition, which celebrates in the form of a continuous narrative the achievements of one or more heroic characters; a book, film, or other creative work likened to an epic’. Think of the epics of Homer, the Iliad or the Odyssey. But ‘epic’ in its modern use tends to draw only on the grandeur of those classic poems, which were thousands of lines long, featured feats of superhuman endeavour, and had narratives that spanned a great many years. The dictionary records the weakened use of ‘epic’ as ‘particularly impressive or remarkable; excellent, outstanding’.
When we talk about a book or film we like, or about a friend’s examination scores, we might reach for the word ‘brilliant’. The OED records this kind of use as simple synonyms for the weakened ‘amazing’ or ‘fantastic’, and notes that the word ‘brilliant’ often relates to the intellect. This is because ‘brilliant’ is actually a word used to describe strong and dazzling light; it is defined as ‘Brightly shining, glittering, sparkling, lustrous’. There is a strong history of the association between light metaphors and human intelligence – we think of the scientific and philosophic revolution that took place from the late 1600s onwards as ‘The Age of Enlightenment’, for example. Because of this, we describe the minds of great thinkers as brilliant, meaning ‘splendid, illustrious, distinguished’. This use is related to the way we describe clever people, especially children, as ‘bright’.
‘Amazing’ is a word we use a lot to mean ‘great beyond expectation’ or ‘wonderful’, but which also has a good deal of other meanings annexed to it. An ‘amazing’ thing can be one that causes distraction or consternation, or which tends to confuse us – again, it is not simply the case that ‘amazing’ means good or positive. Indeed, the OED offers an example of the word as used to mean ‘terrifying’ or ‘dreadful’, from Shakespeare’s Richard III: ‘let thy blows, doubly redoubled, / Fall like amazing thunder on the casque / Of thy adverse pernicious enemy’.
And last, but not least, is ‘lovely’. It might be its own fault that ‘lovely’ is so frequently used, as it has an extremely broad field of signification. At its broadest, it relates to ‘love’ and ‘loveable’, and means ‘loving, kind, affectionate’, but also ‘loveable and attractive’, ‘beautiful’, ‘pleasing to the senses’. It weakest use, in the terms of the dictionary, is when it is used to mean ‘excellent; delightful, pleasant, nice’. We can say a cup of tea or a hot bath is lovely; we can also describe a human being we are in love with as lovely. It is because we make such a wide range of judgements about positive pleasures that we come to use the word ‘lovely’ so frequently and in so many contexts.
That last point is perhaps the most important one of all. All the words on this brief list can be used to mean ‘good or great’. On a daily basis we might say to a friend ‘that’s awesome’ or ‘you’re brilliant’; we might tell someone their Facebook photos are ‘amazing’, or that their holiday looked ‘fantastic’; we say it was ‘wonderful to see you last week’, or that someone is ‘looking incredible’. Recognizing these weakened uses is not necessarily to recognize a fault in how we use language. Rather, it is to acknowledge that the way we use language on a daily basis is a record that we are, after all, quite nice to each other quite a lot of the time. There’s a simple truth to the fact that we have pulled so many words towards one point of meaning, the judgment that something is ‘good or great’ – it’s that we’re looking for as many ways as possible to say good things to each other. And that’s rather marvellous, isn’t it?