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When words lose their power

English sure has some great adjectives. Really great ones. Also wonderful, dazzling, extraordinary, wicked cool, keen, fine and sweet ones. After a while, however, these words wear out.

When a fresh word emerges to describe something in extreme terms, it’s only good for so long before it becomes a tired cliché. We’re seeing it happen right now to amazing, awesome and brilliant. Burned up like rocket fuel. It feels like adjectives have a shorter life span than ever.

Some linguist might correct me, but I have a hunch that words are being exhausted ever-faster thanks to the Internet. Never before has so much writing been transmitted so quickly, and have so many communicators faced so much pressure to stand out. Everything is the best or worst thing ever, every decent person is heroic, every setback is disastrous, every hit is wildly popular, every winter storm is a snowpocalypse.

The standard half-life of a powerful word may be getting shorter, but word exhaustion is hardly a new phenomenon. Consider the word awesome — as Robert Lane Greene did recently in Intelligent Life.

As Greene noted, the King James Bible refers to God as terrible. At the time of that translation (1611), terrible was mainly connected to the word terror. (Basically: capable of inspiring terror.) Today we use terrible to simply mean something is really bad. (As in: “That new Adam Sandler movie looks terrible.”) Of course the modern sense of terrible is not how the original scriptures intended to portray God, so newer transitions of the Bible replaced terrible with awesome.

God is capable of inspiring awe, sure. But nowadays awesome feels like God as described by a surfer dude. Maybe it’s time to replace awesome with something else. (A great and ginormous God?)

Is there any word that we’ve worn more threadbare than awesome? At my job hardly a week goes by when someone doesn’t propose we describe a product as awesome. I usually say, right idea, but let’s find a way to convey it in better words. Nobody cares about your awesome thing. Awesome things blend in with the wallpaper.

In that respect, adjectives are weapons in an arms race. Writers keep reaching for bigger guns to convey positive novelty. You might call that battle epic. Or killer. Or scrumdiddlyumptious.

Or maybe just go easy on the adjectives. Readers are numb to them. But they’ll notice ideas that actually make the future better. So use precise words and details to give people a glimpse of that future. Open a path toward the best possible outcome and clear your adjectives out of the way.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Language, Words

5 comments

  1. Awesome post.

    I think “epic” has also been overused to the point of needing CPR; I’ve heard it used to describe trips to the local burger joint.

    The good news is they eventually refresh themselves. There was a time in the 90s when “unreal” decorated every happening that wasn’t wholly expected, apparently sacrificing itself so that other words could live.

    It’s probably a little early to start trotting it out again. Perhaps in another decade.

  2. Mark says:

    What helps me is to think about why something is good/awesome/epic/whatever. It usually leads me down a better path than the thesaurus.

  3. Michael says:

    Dude, you “crushed” this post.

  4. Susan says:

    I’d like to see “innovation” and all its derivations banned for at least 50 years from the manufacturing world. Runners up include quality and precision.

  5. Steven Nash says:

    The day I saw the latest Moneysupermarket advert was the moment I made conscious effort to never use the word ‘epic’ again.

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