The English language is wonderfully malleable. It shifts and changes, casts off the unwanted or unused portions of its being while scooping up both new words and new meanings for old ones. While other languages struggle to adopt our technology vocabulary and pronounce the words in their own tongues, English (and I mean both British and American versions) marches on, handing over ‘le weekend’ and getting back ‘accoutrements,’ sending off ‘emails’ to Spain and getting back ‘macho.’ And while few of us would now return from a party and describe it as having been very ‘gay,’ if you’re British you might describe the handsome man you met as being very ‘fit’ and if you’re American you might describe the party as ‘awesome.’
Ah, ‘awesome.’ My faithful Oxford dictionary tells me this originates in Middle English and means having “reverential fear or wonder,” while my 1997 edition of Merriam Webster defines it as “inspiring awe, expressive of awe.” To me, the Grand Canyon is awesome, the Rocky Mts. are awesome, but not, as Encarta the online dictionary wishes me to believe, some track on a CD; that may be great to listen to, but it is never going to be awesome. So am I a grumpy old woman?
Recently, I wrote a description using the word “calefacient.” Microsoft Word sent out alarms bells in the shape of red underlining which sent me to ‘Look Up’ and on to Encarta. No results there; the word didn’t exist! My Merriam Webster happily skips from ‘caldron’ to ‘calendar’ so I went on to Bing, a supposed research site (according to my version of Word) or search engine, and happily found my word. With a “use it or lose it” notion in my mind, I kept the word in my writing despite my fear that it may now be archaic. Am I truly that old? Of course, it has nothing to do with one person’s age; the language is changing as I write, as we speak. But now, faced with the acquisition of ‘awesome’ in everyday usage and the possible loss of ‘calefacient,’ I’m not so sure how wonderful this all is. The USA College Entrance Examinations, or SATs, include a large section on vocabulary; is that vocabulary now going to accept the definition of ‘awesome’ as plain old ‘excellent’?
I expect in the end accepting the changes as progress is the best one can do. We may no longer talk about the ‘suspiration’ of the wind or have those little painted stone ‘blackamoors’ outside grand houses to which guests may tie up their horses—both words which critique readers of mine recently admitted to not knowing—yet we can come out of a Shakespeare play having understood the drama perfectly. Hopefully. And while I won’t then stand on a street corner and say, “Hark! I believe the M7 autobus approacheth,” (slight mixing of time periods there), I do have a choice as to whether to describe the play as having the ‘sine qua non’ of performances or perhaps find some sesquipedalian ‘bon mot’…like awesome.