Bruce Hiscock is an intrepid artist, outdoorsman, and children’s book author, also house-builder, tree-lopper (I have photos of the two of us with chainsaws among the trees), and an old friend, part of the Greenfield Crowd, friends, writers and cross-country skiers who live more or less in Greenfield, New York (see also NC contributions by Nate Leslie, Marilyn McCabe, Mary Shartle and Elaine Handle). Bruce lives in a house he built and is still building himself in the side of a hill in the woods in Porter Corners on Ballou Road. We often call it the Hobbit House — bare log beams, the old sleeping loft where the kids gather at the annual Christmas party, the gorgeous windows looking out onto the trees. Bruce is an amazing writer and illustrator. My boys got regular doses of Bruce Hiscock during our bedtime reading sessions, books like The Big Tree, The Big Rock, Coyote and Badger, and When Will It Snow? In part, I love these books because I would see them grow in Bruce’s drawing and painting studio. And his notebooks and travel journals are works of art in their own right. Here we have a taste of Bruce, an awesome little essay on the un-awesomeness of awesome and a little self-healing lesson for those of us who are awesomely challenged.
This past year I attended three weddings. The happy couples were all in their twenties, and there were many young people in attendance, along with elders, and a sprinkling of children. I love weddings, and I was pleased to see that the participants had written their own vows. In the most recent nuptials, the wedding of my nephew on the snow near Lake Tahoe, I especially liked the phrase “in sickness, real or imagined” inserted into the bride’s pledge of devotion. Such language gives me hope that English is still alive and well amongst the younger crowd.
Weddings provide a perfect opportunity to observe how the “texting generation” communicates when they actually meet in person. Although I have never heard a groom say, “OMG, Baby. That was a BFD.” after the service, I am alert to the possibility. As a person of age, I try to note the catch words of the day, having seen: cool, right on, far out, rad, and similar expressions come and go. Currently a single word comes up with unparalleled frequency. Whole flocks of people rely on it as the only adjective for positive feelings. And that word is awesome.
Awesome is a perfectly good word. In the OED (Oxford English Dictionary, a voluminous research tool that pre-dates Wikipedia, oh best beloved) awesome is defined, in its original context, as full of awe, profoundly reverential. The earliest appearance in print, according to the OED, was in 1598 by Richard Bernard, an English clergyman and religious writer. Translating the Latin poet, Terence, he wrote, ”Wise and wittie, in due place awsome, ….” Bernard was somewhat of a non-conformist, advocating a joyful approach to life which seems to have put him at odds with church doctrines of the day. Perhaps that is why he chose to use the word awsome (the early spelling), moving him light years ahead of his time. Incidentally, his daughter, Mary, married Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. I wonder if awsome was used liberally at their celebrations.
Change is natural to language. Words are a fluid device of communication and often adapt to the era, taking on different levels of meaning as the years go by. The OED tells us that awesome is now used in a trivial sense as an adjective meaning marvelous, excellent, etc., as in a New Yorker cartoon caption. “Third grade? Third grade is awesome.”
Whether one approves of these changes or not is inconsequential. Language rolls on regardless of personal preference. And so I bear no more resentment to the change than I do to the person who backed into the door of my Subaru. These things happen. What I do object to is the excessive use of the word. When describing a bridal gown, a toast by the best man, or even the wedding night, must they all be awesome?
And so, like the campaign to combat obesity, I am proposing a method to slim down the use of awesome. I feel this is important for the health and sanity of America. It could go global, but right now I’m not concerned with that. Of course, an individual could just vow to use the word less often. But such resolutions, while made with the best intentions, like tax reform or home exercise programs, usually fail. That is why I have devised the following pro-active approach.
If you catch yourself using awesome in, say, every other sentence, you are in need of serious help. The first thing you must do is admit your language deficiency. This is best carried out in a group or family setting where you rise and say, “Hi, my name is ____________, and I am an awesome addict.” Oops, let’s rephrase that to, “I am addicted to awesome.” You work it out.
Next, take a sheet of paper and write Alternatives to Awesome at the top. Now begin thinking. This is an important part of the cure. Go easy on yourself at first; remember the adjectival part of your brain has probably atrophied from disuse. Start with a few simple words, like terrific or nice. Later, as your ability to utilize language becomes more facile, try to think in shades of meaning. Arrange words in categories like Truly Wonderful or Pretty Good. This will help you differentiate an actual range of values in your vocabulary. I could suggest more adjectives to you, but that would defeat the process. Really, you must do the work yourself.
Even after you have developed a satisfactory list of new words you may find yourself unable to recall them when engaged conversation. This is normal, like forgetting the name of favorite movie or your mother-in-law. To remedy this, try taping a mini version of your list to the face of your wrist watch. Then, you can appear to be nonchalantly checking the time while you review the possibilities. If you do not wear a wrist watch, and are so inclined, tattooing on the forearm is an acceptable substitute.
Remember, healing takes time. Setting up a five year plan is not unreasonable. If you can decrease your use of the A word by 20 percent each year, you will be in fine fettle as you enter middle age and new words come along. It was a never a goal to completely eliminate this word from the general vocabulary, but like a person who has a problem with alcohol, it is probably best that you abstain completely. Good luck, and may the great Thesaurus be with you.
Bruce Hiscock is the author/illustrator of many natural history books for children. His stories, like The Big Rock and The Big Tree, are based on real subjects and contain enough information to enlighten grade school kids as well as adults, at least some adults. These books, among others, have been designated as Outstanding Science Trade Books by the Children’s Book Council. Journeys in the Arctic form the basis of several works, including most recently, Ookpik- the Travels of a Snowy Owl, a finalist for the Charlotte Award of New York State. Over the course of his life, he has worked as a research chemist, toy maker, college professor, and drug tester of race horses. He graduated from the University of Michigan, B.S. 1962, and Cornell University, Ph.D. 1966. Bruce lives in Porter Corners, NY, at the edge of the wild, in a house he built by hand using the native rocks and trees.