Live English Real Vocabulary

Real Vocabulary Quiz, Question 1: When do you say “awesome”?

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Real Vocabulary with Scott ThornburyOur Real Grammar series showed how the evidence of language in use undermines or contradicts many of the made-up or outdated “rules” which some people insist on.

In our new series on Real Vocabulary, with Scott Thornbury, we’ll be bringing you blog posts, videos and a quiz that give evidence-based answers to frequently asked questions about vocabulary.

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In the first question in our Real Vocabulary quiz, we asked whether it was acceptable to use the word awesome in the sentence “We loved the concert – the band was awesome”.

In this context, awesome is used as a way of saying that you think something is really good or enjoyable. But in its original meaning, awesome refers to something that overwhelms you with feelings of wonder and fear. That meaning is still widely used, with examples in our corpus such as:

Their video footage illustrates the awesome power of a hurricane in full force.
The Niagara Falls came into view, a truly awesome sight.

But the meaning we’re discussing here, where awesome is just another way of saying “great” or “fantastic”, is a relatively recent usage, and some people disapprove of it. So is it acceptable?

Well, this use of awesome is a good example of hyperbole – which is when we exaggerate how big, bad, important etc something is, often as a way of adding emphasis or being humorous. This is a very typical feature of English, and you will often hear people saying things like “it’s boiling/freezing out there”, when in fact they just mean that the weather is hot or cold. In the same way, you’ll sometimes hear words like tragic or devastating used not only to describe genuinely terrible events (the tragic/devastating news of her sudden death) but also for talking about minor disappointments such as losing a football game. So it’s not at all unusual for words which describe extreme situations to acquire a second meaning where the speaker is simply exaggerating.

But the real key to judging whether it’s acceptable to call a band’s performance awesome is context – because context very often influences our vocabulary choices. It is useful to make the distinction between “marked” and “unmarked” words and uses. Most words in a language are unmarked: you can use them in any context. That applies to words like house, believe, frightening, or slowly, which can be found in texts of every type – from a casual conversation or Facebook posting to a literary novel or scientific textbook – and which can be used in any part of the English-speaking world. But some words or meanings are mainly used in certain specific registers (such as formal or informal situations), or in particular varieties of English (such as Indian English or Australian English). In those specific contexts, such words will sound quite normal, but in most other situations they could seem inappropriate or might even lead to misunderstandings.

In the Macmillan Dictionary, we use “labels” to indicate when the use of a word or phrase or meaning is in some way limited by context. At the word active, for example, most of the meanings are “unmarked”, but meaning 6 is more specialized: it explains what active means when we are talking about an active verb or an active clause, and so it has the label linguistics. Other words have labels such as formal, humorous, or mainly spoken, to show that these are the kinds of context in which those words are typically used.

Our entry for awesome gives two meanings: the first is the original sense we discussed above, and this is unmarked. But the second meaning – defined as “extremely good” – has an informal label, and an additional note saying that it is “used mainly by young people”. Our corpus shows that both uses of awesome are fairly common, but it also demonstrates that examples of the second meaning usually occur in informal contexts. Since the situation we were describing involved friends talking about a band they had seen, it’s safe to conclude that the context is informal (and probably involves young people too), so in this case the use of awesome is both acceptable and contextually-appropriate.

To learn more about Real Vocabulary, keep a close eye on our Real Vocabulary page. You can also follow this topic using #realvocabulary on Twitter, and remember that you can find all the blog posts on this topic by using the tags “prescriptivism” or “realvocabulary”.

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Michael Rundell

2 Comments

  • As you say, mainly used by “young people” to mean fantastic (to describe a concert, for example). So maybe we should just say that if you´re over 18/25/40, you should definitely avoid using it in this kind of context to maintain a minimal level of dignity… Unless of course you believe you´re only as young as the language you use, Swag answer, or what?!

  • Hi there! I was in the States recently, specifically in Rocky Mountain country, and heard “awesome” being used in lieu of “thank you” as in
    – Here’s your meal.
    – Awesome.
    or as a way of acknowledging what someone has said – whether or not what was said was “awesome” in any sense of the word!
    – Turn left at the corner and you’ll see it about 100 yards ahead of you. Can’t miss it.
    – Awesome.
    Maybe I’ve been on the other side of the pond for too long, but can anyone out there confirm this rather strange usage? Awesome.

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