Not too many years ago, my son (now 8) went through a “boring” phase. Not that he himself was boring – far from it! In my totally unbiased opinion, he’s one of the least boring kids on the planet. But for a while there, he used the word “boring” all the time. Just so we’re clear, the definition of boring is “not interesting; tedious.” However, my son seemed to have a slightly broader interpretation of the word and put it to use whenever a negative adjective was called for. Wearing a jacket on a cold day? Boring. Finishing those last five bites of chicken? So boring. Helping Mom carry something in from the car? Waayyy too boring! I don’t mean to suggest that any of these activities is particularly lively or fascinating (both excellent antonyms for boring), but each was undesirable to my son in its own way and “boring” was the best he could do. A jacket can feel bulky and uncomfortable. The chicken might be too spicy or hard to chew. And a grocery bag can really slow you down if you’re trying to beat your sister to the Wii.
My son is out of the boring phase now, but he’s hardly the only person to use a word so often and with such abandon that its actual meaning is left in the dust. I’ve finally reached a point in life where I can admit my complicity in the utter ruination of the word “awesome” during the 1980’s. In my defense, I was only a teenager and, well…it was just such a handy word. Equally appropriate for describing a pair of Jordache jeans, a new Duran Duran song or the final scene of the movie Sixteen Candles, “awesome” was my go-to word for the better part of a decade. It meant stylish, great, fun, exciting, cool…anything generally positive. What it did NOT mean was “extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear,” which is the actual definition of awesome. Prior to the 1980’s, awesome was used to describe God, forces of nature and the atomic bomb. It was like the Superman of adjectives! Who could have guessed that a single generation of teenagers would prove to be its kryptonite?
Of course, a more recent example of this is the word “amazing.” You knew I was going there, right? This poor, unfortunate word started life as “causing great surprise or wonder; astonishing,” but is now reduced to describing a chocolate dessert or a new pair of stilettos. How sad.
Well, I say it ends here. Maybe it’s too late to save awesome or amazing, but if I can prevent just one more unsuspecting adjective from suffering the same fate, it will be worth it. I’m not saying it will be easy. A 2012 study by Physorg.com showed that our vocabulary is actually shrinking at a faster rate than at any other time in the last 300 years. Why? We’re simplifying the language we use in our e-mails and text messages, and we’re limiting our word choices to those that are allowed by our spellcheckers. According to researchers at Kings College in London, our dependence on digital media also means that we’re learning new words by seeing them on a screen, rather than by hearing them spoken. Unfortunately, when it comes to understanding and remembering new words, visual learning is not nearly as effective as hearing and imitating speech.
So, who’s with me? Let’s buck the trend by pledging to expand our vocabularies by whatever means necessary. Download a New Word A Day app. Read a non-fluffy book. Have a good long chat with a literate friend. With more words in our arsenal, we’ll be better able to deploy just the right one for each occasion. We’ll improve the quality of our speech, our writing and ultimately, our understanding. It’s a long shot, but if we could pull this off, it might be something we could accurately describe as amazing. Awesome, even.