It’s everywhere, burrowing into my ears. I can’t concentrate on what people are saying anymore. I hear only it, pervasive as an undertone hum. I count the number of times it appears. It drills my senses with its numbing, senseless repetition. I’m being driven mad!
It is the word amazing.
The word amazing was once scrupulously applied to things that it actually meant, such as twenty-foot wedding dress trains and Sputnik. Things that truly amazed.
But today, this word is conversational herpes, an incurable earsore whose reoccurance is used to describe anything for which we’re too lazy find a more specific descriptor.
Just turn on the TV right now and count how many times people say it on the news, reality shows, and interviews. Whenever someone runs out of an ability to properly explain something with specificity, they run to the adjectival filler amazing. It’s cheap, industrial-grade description — the corn syrup of self-expression.
Even the most cursory of explorations will turn up descriptions spackled with wildly louche exploitations of amazing to describe things that aren’t really. In a few seconds of searching, I found amazing being used to describe, variously, a game-winning golf stroke, colored socks, Kirsten Stewart’s acting, and a Subway sandwich containing bacon. These things were not, variously, skilled, dorky, laconic, and savory. Or anything, really, that actually described them beyond an enthusiastically positive impression. They were all amazing.
Keep your ears open. You will suddenly hear many, many more appearances of this placebo word. More than you ever realized. Several instances in every discussion. And you’ll be driven crazy very quickly.
On a recent work trip aboard a cruise, the social director used it 11 times (I’m telling you I’m counting) in a two-minute speech designed to draw our attention to the skill of the service staff and the availability of the swimming pool on Deck 11. Just today, a friend used it to describe a brand of cracker and the aurora borealis just two sentences apart. Surely a snack food and the Northern Lights cannot both be accurately portrayed by the same adjective.
No, but the expediency of our conversation can be. It’s strictly a word we say but rarely write (except for on the most purple Internet post mills), such as gonna or lookit. No writer worth their ink would stretch the word much beyond the literal sense — to be jaw-droppingly dazzled, to be astonished to the point of being stunned — but even from the mouths of normally well-spoken geniuses, amazing overflows as a shorthand for anything positive.
Our tendency to use the word so sparingly in written English while it’s so egregiously stuffed into every other spoken sentence, almost makes it seem as if we’re nearly unaware that we use it as much as we do.
Looking on Twitter, where our communication is more conversational in vocabulary and tone, confirms the divide between using it in formal writing and when we’re palling around with colloquial symbolism. In tweets, the use of amazing pours forth, dozens by the minute, to describe everything from friends to concerts to dishes to songs. It does double duty as an adverb, too, as in “you did amazing,” but one battle at a time.
Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks usage of words and phrases in books, puts the written zenith of amazing around World War II, when the world was in cataclysm and certainly fit the adjective, but it’s been on a rising comeback for the last 20 years. But Google can’t track frequency in what we say. So I do it. Believe me, few of us can get through an anecdote without the word.
I wish I could say that the proliferation of amazing was just down to our expanding American idiocy, and proof that we are being turned into vanilla-vocabularied mouth-breathers through an educational system that’s being starved by our Hedge Fund Manager Overlords. But no, even the British Royal Family is doing it.
After a recent Diamond Jubilee tour, Prince Harry’s official statement went all amazed and shit. “The warmth of the reception that we’ve received from every single country that we’ve been to — including Brazil — has been utterly amazing,” the BBC said he said.
So much for The Grandmother’s English. Not that it’s without precedent: William Shakespeare’s characters, including Othello‘s Iago and A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Hermia, sometimes professed to be amazed, but almost always in the sense of being profoundly dumbstruck. Only one character, John of Gaunt in Richard II, ever uttered the word amazing, and even then he was using it to describe the ghastly noise of God crushing the skulls of his enemies. An argument could be reasonably made that all of them were more strategic about their deployment of the word than simply praising a D.J. or a discount.
Often, the stultifying heights of amazing are apparently still not enough, as was apparently the reason with this junior high swim meet; in that case, and in many more besides, it was described as really amazing, which is the equivalent of totally awesome from the 1980s — as if anything is ever deceptively amazing or fractionally awesome. (In that instance, the speaker is an Australian, who know from their experiences with the cane toad and the Norway rat that they are historically defenseless against undermining invasions from the rest of the world, and this word is no exception.)
Using this word too much makes a even a well-spoken person seem banally agog, trapped in a bubble of over-stimulation, or worst of all, witless.
Pardon me for editing imprecise language skills like Inigo Montoya did over inconceivable, but bitch, please! I do not think that word means what you think it means. Don’t alienate your friends by confronting them over their amazing abuse. Also don’t turn it into a drinking game, or you’ll never recover. Just silently judge them, and vow to do better yourself.
Count ’em up, like I do, on Facebook posts, in chat show interviews, out of the mouths of reality show judges when they’re really phoning it in, and when your friends are talking about something they like but are thinking more about what they’re about to say next than being truly descriptive now.
Count ’em up, like me, and you’ll find it… well, you know.