2014 US-to-UK (co-)Word of the Year: awesome

Thanks to all who have nominated US-to-UK and UK-to-US words for the annual Words of the Year (AmE) fest. The decisions were difficult, and so I am going to cheat and have two US-to-UK words. I can do that, because I'm the (orig. AmE) boss. And the first one is:

awesome


And in a coincidence that you probably won't believe (it's true!) my BrE-speaking child has just looked up from her (arguably orig. AmE) video game to say "That was awesome. I cooked an egg!"

Of course, awesome is not a new word in any English. It's been used to mean either 'full of awe' or 'inspiring awe' for centuries. But its use as enthusiastic praise of any little (or big) thing is originally American; the earliest [alleged] example of it in the OED is from 1961 in the now-defunct women's magazine McCall's:
He looked up to see Mrs. Kirby, awesome in a black-and-yellow polka-dotted slicker, bearing down on him.
This use of awesome really came into its own (in the US) in the 1980s. As Robert Lane Greene reminisces:

...change was happening to “awesome”. It was defined in 1980 in the “Official Preppy Handbook”, a bestselling semi-satirical look at well-heeled American youth: “Awesome: terrific, great.” It had a bit of California surfer-dude and Valley Girl, too. By 1982, the Guardian was mocking the West Coast with “It’s so awesome, I mean, fer shurr, toadly, toe-dully!”

Soon the word needed no definition. “Awesome” became the default descriptor for anything good. In 1982, I was seven and I swallowed it whole. It stayed with me for decades. In 2005, I remember meeting a girl when I had just seen “Batman Begins”, the moody psychological picture that reinvigorated a tired franchise. “It’s awesome,” I told her. “Awesome. Just awesome.” She wondered, she later said, what kind of journalist had just one adjective in his vocabulary. Somehow, she married me all the same.
“Awesome” has been with my generation in America so long that it now has a whiff of retro.
And it's been in BrE for a while now too. My colleague Justyna Robinson studies the sociolinguistics of word-meaning variation and change, and awesome is one she's followed in British English. This means that she gets to write things with titles like "Awesome insights into semantic variation". (I am jealous.) In that 2011 book chapter, she reports on a study in which she asked Yorkshire residents of different ages and backgrounds to name something awesome and to tell her why it was awesome. Older respondents said things like "The Grand Canyon. Because it takes your breath away." The under-30s said things like "a salad, because it was really good".
Robinson (2011; see Awesome title link above)



But it's not just teenagers using it. Robert Lane Greene reports that "The Guardian, the paper that mocked “awesome” in 1982, had used it in 6,457 articles by July 2011, with one or two being added each day"(see link above).

So, why make it Co-Word of the Year for 2014? One reason is that it was all over the news when the first findings of the Spoken British National Corpus 2014 came out. Here's a selection in which this particular word made the headline.

In the Guardian:
There are several (press-release-inspired?) with this title (this one from phys.org):

And more:

And more:


The Daily Mail headline alludes to the other reason this is a Word of 2014. The Lego Movie and its theme song 'Everything is Awesome'.



Before 2014, I heard British teenagers saying awesome. I heard my English child saying it only when she had just been visiting her American cousins. But now, it's the (AmE) go-to positive evaluation word for the under-10s too. This is part of the landscape of their language now--not an Americanism that they've ironically decided to adopt, but just how they talk. The makers of The Lego Movie were surely cognizant of the word's "retro" feeling when choosing it for their theme, making a bit of an in-joke for the US parents who used it (and Lego(s)) when they were young. But the irony is lost on young British children. It's just a (orig. AmE in this sense) cool word for them.

Its WOTY status was sealed for me when I overhead this conversation between mother and pre-school son about how he should be playing with his baby sister:

Mother: Reuben, Isabella is much smaller than you. When you play with her, you have to be extra....
[Reuben ignores her]
Mother: When you play with her you have to be extra.....
[Reuben ignores her some more]
Mother: You have to be extra...
Reuben: Awesome!


The other US-to-UK and the UK-to-US WotYs will be revealed in the next few days.

20 comments

  1. I think you mean you are toadally jealous, or at least soooo jealous. I mean, c'mon, here!

    ObFact: Jealous and zealous are etymological doublets: the Lord your God is a jealous god, and his fundie supporters back in post-Exilic times were zealous for the Lord.

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  2. When I lived in the UK, the word I heard most often for enthusiastic praise was 'brilliant', which always sounded odd to my American ears. Is there any sign that it is being replaced by 'awesome'?

    Matt

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  3. Brilliant was popularized in the mid-90's by the BBC's The Fast Show. One of the regular sketches consisted of a young geezer, played by Paul Whitehouse, ambling through various scenes describing everything as "Brilliant!" or "Fantastic!". Indeed, the show was entitled Brilliant when broadcast in the U.S.

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  4. Our youth theatre group in Leicester has just done the US-based musical "Back to the 80s" (written post-2000). "Awesome" may have been one of the most used adjectives in the script! Our British kids really knew how to pronounce it in the genuine US way (more "ossom" than "awwwwsum").

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  5. Have you ever covered "Ewww" and "Awww"?

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  6. Interesting list of words in decline: Fortnight, Marvellous, Fetch, Walkman, Poll, Catalogue, Pussycat, Marmalade, Drawers, Cheerio.
    Why "fetch"? A pretty basic word, I would have thought.
    "Pussycat", as the Mail suggests, because people are more conscious of the double-entendre.
    I have heard before that marmalade itself is less popular.
    "Drawers" (presumably the storage not the undergarment) - is furniture with them less common?
    "Catalogue" I used to be a library cataloguer! More people buying online than choosing from mail-order catalogues?

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  7. It's my impression that the use of "awesome" has fallen off in North America. It certainly has in Canada if not in the US.
    Have an awesome holiday. Ewww!

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  8. BBC Radio 4 has what I can only describe as an intellectual magazine programme Start the Week. This morning's programme was on hedonism, so one of the contributor/participants was Zoe Cormier, author of Sex, Drugs & Rock n Roll: The Science of Hedonism and the Hedonism of Science.

    Her speech-style is what you might expect from a young Canadian woman living in Britain and engaged in popular communication as well as print journalism. When somebody quoted a particularly relevant and beautiful phrase from Anthony and Cleopatra:

    music, moody food of us that trade in love

    Zoe's immediate response was That's awesome!. Shortly after that she must have sensed 'But this is a grown-up discussion'. I'd better paraphrase.' and added That's brilliant!.

    If you listen to the link above, Zoe's contribution starts at 21:06. Greg Doran's Clepatra quote comes at 28:59

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  9. Back in the day, American kids adopted Britishisms for fun and the "cool" factor. Then the sad days of world homogenization and American television and fast food franchises taking over the world. Please stop it before it's too late! :-\ And, please, somebody, find a way to stop the use of "awesome" before it drives me crazy!

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  10. Reporting from Spain here: Spanish people became aware of the word "awesome" when the series "How I Met Your Mother" was popular. Now I think they've forgotten. When are things like "wicked" and "hella" going to get on word-of-the-year lists?

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  11. As a Brit old fogey, I consciously try to say 'awe-inspiring', never ever awesome... in the UK, 'great' was superseded by 'brilliant', then 'excellent', then... perhaps awesome is the word.

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  12. biochemist

    The earliest use known to the OED of awesome to mean 'awe-inspiring' is earlier than standardised spelling:

    A sight of his cross is more awsom then the weight of it. (1637)

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  13. David, perhaps this is another of those words that went across the Atlantic in the 17C and fell out of use on this side.
    I only have the COD on my bookshelf, so I am just reporting what I hear and read myself. I am trying to think of common BrE words that end with -some, and apart from handsome, I can only bring irksome and loathsome to mind.

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  14. Dru, the other two quotes are cisatlantic and well spread over time, but neither reflects the non-regional, non-archaic usage of its day

    1816 Scott Antiquary II. x*. 286 It's awsome to hear your gudemither break out in that gait.
    1870 W. Morris Earthly Paradise I. i. 256 Together did the awesome sisters cry.

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  15. I think there was also a 19C use of 'awful' where one might now find awe- inspiring, or of course, awesome.
    Awful, like terrible, now has only negative connotations.

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  16. Just thought I'd throw in the legendary (i.e. not provable) story of John Wayne in the Jesus biopic "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965). According to Tim Healey in his book "The World's Worst Movies", John Wayne had some difficulty delivering his one and only line (as the centurion presiding at the crucifixion): "Truly, this man wuz the Son of God." The Director, George Stevens, urged him to give it more AWE. Mr Wayne tried again: "AWww, truly this man wuz the Son of God."

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  17. I had to laugh - I have been a "fan" of the word "awesome" ever since I saw this 'Sh*t My Kids Ruined' photo.

    (My 5yo twins and 7yo say "Awesome!" multiple times a day. Even though the 7yo was born in the USA, she left at the age of 4 months and the twins have never been there. It's ubiquitous in Australia too.)

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  18. Just noticed a reference in the anonymous comment to a "young geezer." That's an oxymoron in AmE.

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  19. Rebecca Lubansky13 January, 2015 03:53

    We moved back to Australia from the UK (where our kids were born) in 2012 and when my 4.5 year old son started pre-school I noticed he very quickly picked up the use of 'awesome' whereas he had never used it in the UK. 'Awesome' is certainly ubiquitous among young kids here. Interesting to hear it is now becoming more common in the UK too.

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  20. I see signs (in the UK) that 'epic' is the new word, replacing awesome.... In the MoneySupermarket TV ad, and in some children's comments in a survey of new toys (Christmas issue of Good Housekeeping UK).

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)