Word Matters Podcast

Everything Is 'Awesome.' Or is it?

Word Matters, Episode 14

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On a dark and stormy night many years ago in Springfield, Massachusetts, a fake word rose to take its place among the living. Or at least among the pages of our dictionary. Today we're telling the haunting tale of that ghost word. Then, we'll look at a word that (to some) is even scarier: the dreaded 'awesome.'

Download the episode here.


(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)

(teaser clips)

Emily Brewster: This word has kind of magically appeared there through pure error.

Ammon Shea: There's an entire broad category of words which, more or less, mean something that's really great that used to have distinctly different meanings.

(music break)

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: a ghost word and a famous linguistic complaint. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. It's a ghost, or even spookier, a ghost word. Cue the scary organ music. I'll tell the tale of how a fake word, somehow made it past our editors to haunt the pages of a Merriam-Webster dictionary. In 1934, the G&C Merriam Company, I believe the name was at the time, released a new dictionary. It was called Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition. It was the culmination of work done by 250 editors and consultants. It weighed 17 pounds. It has a six-inch binding. It is the largest book to ever be mass produced. And within the structure of that dictionary, between those covers, there was a word that is what we call a ghost word. It was a word that was not supposed to be there at all. It was in the Ds, D-O-R-D, with the meaning "density."

Ammon Shea: Was this disapproved of, not supposed to... Because a lot of people think there are many words that shouldn't be in the dictionary. Is this in a different manner than that typical one?

Emily Brewster: This word had never been seen in any kind of published edited text as far as we know. There was no evidence of it in the files at the Merriam-Webster headquarters. No editor had ever carefully marked this word and said, "Oh, this is an interesting word that means density." This word just kind of magically appeared there through pure error.

Ammon Shea: Did somebody lose a bet? Is that it? Or this is prank gone awry?

Emily Brewster: It was not. It was a complete and utter mistake. There was a chemistry editor who's named Austin M. Patterson.

Ammon Shea: That sounds like the name of somebody who's responsible for dord.

Emily Brewster: I think it sounds like probably a very responsible editor, period, Ammon. I really don't think you should denigrate Mr. Patterson. Patterson did nothing wrong, by the way.

Ammon Shea: Okay.

Emily Brewster: He was doing his work as a chemistry definer. He was making note of the different things that the letter D is used as an abbreviation for. And so he wrote on a little slip of paper, on a three-by-five slip of paper, capital D, or lowercase d, density. And this was to be understood as capital D or lowercase d are both used as abbreviations for the word density.

Peter Sokolowski: So the letter D just meant "density"?

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Peter Sokolowski: Okay.

Emily Brewster: So, he passed this slip on to the next person in the chain of people who deal with these things. When we did our lexicography on paper, the same piece of paper would be seen by multiple editors who had different tasks they would do, pronunciation, etymology, just the editing, reviewing, cross-reference, all of this. The person who received his slip of paper that said "D or d, density" thought that there was simply a space missing between the O and the R. At this time, an editor would always leave a space between the letters of a word so that any kind of stresses could be added, any kind of stress marks could be added very easily, pronunciation symbols. And so the person who handled this slip saw D, capital D space O-R space lowercase d, and thought, "Oh, there should be a space between the O and the R." So that person did a squiggly underline under the whole word, which meant the whole thing is one word and it should be in boldface. And this entry went next to a pronunciation editor who said, "Okay, dord, well, there's not much controversy on how this could be pronounced." And so just kind of-

Peter Sokolowski: With no evidence.

Neil Serven: No evidence at all, no recording of somebody saying this word at all or-

Emily Brewster: That's right. And we don't actually know... The etymologist just, I don't know, didn't address it at all.

Neil Serven: Just over skipped it.

Emily Brewster: In any case, it made it into the dictionary as a word meaning "density." It was in this dictionary, again, that dictionary was published in 1934. In 1939, an editor recognized that this word was in there and that it was an error. And this person wrote up a slip that said, "Ghost word, imperative, urgent. This must be removed." It was not actually removed until 1947 because these things are slow. You think about the size of this dictionary and just how many words were in this dictionary, and this dictionary, Peter, you can get into the details of just how exceptionally prolix this dictionary was, it had so, so, so many words. And making a change to a print dictionary like this, it's a complicated, expensive proposition.

Peter Sokolowski: And that was two lines of text, I think, that entry, right?

Emily Brewster: No, just one.

Neil Serven: Just one, I think, right.

Peter Sokolowski: It was just the one. This was a book that was still set in hot type, so it has to be remembered that if we corrected it, we had to add a line of text to that column without having consequences that could be dire on a book that had 4,000 pages.

Ammon Shea: Is there any evidence that, after the publication of Webster's Second, the years between when it was published and before the dord was taken out, was the word then... Did it escape into the wild?

Peter Sokolowski: Did anyone use it? The one use of dord.

Ammon Shea: The lost dords.

Peter Sokolowski: An innocent use.

Emily Brewster: I don't think any chemists or scientists were convinced to use dord because it appeared in a dictionary.

Ammon Shea: They're usually such an easily duped lot in a sense.

Peter Sokolowski: But the thing is, this leads to other questions.

Emily Brewster: Before we would get there, though, I just want to say that I would really love to see the figurative use of density being referred to with the word dord.

Peter Sokolowski: Perfect.

Neil Serven: It does seem to fit, I mean, density kind of being like stupidity or...

Ammon Shea: Blockheadedness.

Neil Serven: ... not being able to get through to someone, you talk about their density, their dense of mind or whatever.

Emily Brewster: Although I do always think of George McFly saying, "You are my density"...

Neil Serven: Yes, you are my density.

Emily Brewster: ... but he means destiny.

Neil Serven: Destiny.

Emily Brewster: You are my density, you are my dord.

Ammon Shea: If he had said, "You are at my dord," it would have been the ultimate in-joke.

Neil Serven: But dord has this kind of stupid sounding-ness to it. The consonants at the end are just kind of beautiful. And so, we can kind of see how this happened. You explained it well by the writing on the card, just simply the spaces weren't right. So, some editor misinterpreted it as a word with a semantic meaning rather than an abbreviation. And, yet, somehow no tracking was ever done to refer back to the evidence and double-check if one editor was saying the same as what another editor was saying. And so it just kind of slipped through and...

Emily Brewster: I don't think this could happen in our era of lexicography.

Peter Sokolowski: No. Well, I mean...

Emily Brewster: This would never happen. There were 250 people working on this. They were probably under incredible deadlines all the time. This is an immensely expensive project. And there was just a lot of pressure on people to do the work quickly, I guess.

Peter Sokolowski: Was it not given an etymology? Because, it seems very Germanic, I have to say, dord.

Emily Brewster: No etymology.

Peter Sokolowski: There's no etymology, but I've never thought about this with regard to this slip, because a lot of chemistry of course, would be New Latin. It would be given a very quick NL for etymology and then move on. But usually those are completely transparent, that we understand exactly what the Latin is that it's using. And this is the first time I've ever thought of that, the etymologists should have caught... But it should have been caught at many points. And one thing I want to mention is just old kind of convention of print publishing, which is the typesetting copy editing marks, the squiggly line that was under there, which indicates bold. As an editor, and this is something that we've all done, more in the past than today, if you put one straight line under, if you underline something, that means italics. And so this should have been squiggly under the capital D, a straight line under O-R, and then a squiggly line under the lowercase D and that would have been bold, italic, bold. So, that would have been typeset in different characters, and it would have been very obvious that this said "D or d" and not "dord." And I think another of those conventions is if you underline twice, if there's a double underlined, that's what we call small caps, small capital letters that are used as cross-references.

Ammon Shea: What's interesting is that this error made it through. But before the time, it really was not at all uncommon to find scads, hordes of mistakes in dictionaries. I mean, lexicographers would botch stuff all the time.

Emily Brewster: Well, but a mistake is different than a completely fictitious word.

Ammon Shea: Bringing in a fake word. My favorite example of a kind of weird word that went in was in the OED, in the second edition. They had an entry for oneyer, O-N-E-Y-E-R. They weren't sure what the word was or where it came from. But it was from Shakespeare, so they knew it was important enough to put in, but they actually, the definition says "origin and meaning uncertain," which is kind of placeholder for, "When we figure this out, we'll get back to you." Even though that's kind of absurd in a way, and now they define it as, "Perhaps a sheriff," they got back to us. It's very different than just putting in a completely imaginary word.

Peter Sokolowski: And this raises the question of security words, or words that are put in to protect copyright.

Ammon Shea: Which is kind of a myth.

Peter Sokolowski: I think it's a myth. As far as I know. People often ask me that question. "Do you have secret words in the dictionary?" It's just not something that we do.

Ammon Shea: Right. What they're referred to is Mountweazels in reference material, based on, what was it, the Columbia Encyclopedia, which I think had a fictitious entry for Lillian Mountweazel.

Peter Sokolowski: That's a great name.

Ammon Shea: And ever since that, it's really captured the public imagination that we're all putting in sneaky...

Peter Sokolowski: Secret words.

Ammon Shea: ... imaginary secret things to try to catch our competitors, and it just doesn't really happen.

Neil Serven: I think in terms of dictionary lore and the strange stories of lexicography, this is one of the chief ones of, "How could that have happened?" It's a story that maybe people who have never worked on a dictionary couldn't understand how this is even possible. And then, if you've worked on a dictionary, you can absolutely understand how it's possible. I don't know how many of these additions that still have dord in them survive in the wild to this day?

Ammon Shea: I've got a dord.

Emily Brewster: I have one.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, they were printing them by the millions.

Neil Serven: I don't have one. It's not quite like the Honus Wagner baseball card. We're not quite struck out of production after a month.

Peter Sokolowski: Neil, you bring up an important point. Sometimes I've corresponded with people who ask about this entry, or even on Twitter, this'll become a discussion. It's maybe the most famous mistake in a dictionary. And I always say, if you find a copy of Websters' Second, that you want to buy, make sure it's got the error in it. Find one that's a copyright from before 1947. The one I have at home is a '46 and it has the error. And I think it's more colorful and more interesting and a great story. And if you're going to own a copy of an old historical dictionary like this, you might as well have the fun printing.

Ammon Shea: Emily, did you just come across this? Was it just part of office lore or when you started working at Merriam almost 20 years ago, was this part of the cautionary training process, where they sat everybody down, all the new hires and told them the story...

Peter Sokolowski: Don't do this.

Neil Serven: Do not do this

Ammon Shea: Do not do dord.

Emily Brewster: No, this was not... I somehow heard this somewhere along the way. In my early years, and I was really excited to actually go into the files and find the slip.

Peter Sokolowski: The slip is still there.

Emily Brewster: All the evidence is there.

Ammon Shea: The closest story I ever heard, similar to this, was that there's this wonderful project, the historical thesaurus of the Oxford English dictionary. There's a wonderful, insane project that these researchers at the University of Glasgow spent four and a half decades going through the entire Oxford English Dictionary and finding, not just the synonyms, but the historical synonyms everywhere.

Emily Brewster: It's a beautiful work.

Ammon Shea: It's insane and really spectacular. And I was talking to the editors in chief, these lovely old Scottish women. And we were working on this for decades. And one of them said that "One time I had a bad graduate student." They had graduate students that would work on it. And they said, one time they had a bad graduate student. They had to let them go. They fired this guy. And she said, "As he was leaving, he turned to us in fear. And he said, "I just want you to know, I put a fake definition in, and I'm not telling you where it is."" And she said they actually spent several weeks looking for it before they decided that he probably wasn't telling the truth. It was such a genius thing to say anyway, a crappy... A really mean thing to do, but.

Peter Sokolowski: It's terrible.

Ammon Shea: But these are people who have dedicated their lives to the accurate cataloging of millions and millions of possible shades of meaning. And to say that one of them is wrong is really... Oh boy, that's mean.

Emily Brewster: No doubt about how him being bad...

Ammon Shea: Yes.

Emily Brewster: There's villainy there.

Peter Sokolowski: But the thing about this error is, it's sort of doesn't hurt anybody. It's sort of fun. What it really shows, I think, is the sort of assembly line quality of this kind of work for a project like that. That these people were working quickly and the slip was passed from one editor to another and it went through several hands and nobody noted that it was not a word that any of them had ever heard of before. But think of how many words these people worked on. Speaking for myself, very frequently, you encounter words that we've never heard of before at all. So, that's a regular part of the job,

Neil Serven: Especially when we're dealing with different specialists, dord...

Peter Sokolowski: You would've deferred it to a science expert.

Neil Serven: Even if I assign it to a science editor, and someone who is not in the physical sciences, a general editor who would encounter that and think, "Okay, I want to trust what you're saying. I don't read these books. I don't read these books about physical science."

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Emily Brewster: That's a good point that a non specialist would recognize, that specialists would know terms they didn't know.

Neil Serven: Right. So Emily was saying that this kind of era likely wouldn't happen now, mainly that's because of the tools that we use to create definitions now and create citations now, pretty much everything's electronic now. And it would pass probably in front of a large number of people before it actually saw an attempt at being set in print.

Emily Brewster: Here's something I'm wondering, what order did they complete this project? In what order? We never start at A. We never start a new defining projects at A.

Neil Serven: It's a big secret you're revealing. .

Emily Brewster: We sometimes start at L or M and...

Ammon Shea: That way you get to the end faster. Jesse Sheidlower used to say, "You start at M, you get there twice as fast."

Emily Brewster: No, it's because, A can be scrutinized. And you really want to have your system down before you....

Neil Serven: The idea of being with people, looking at the dictionary and judging it or going to look at the beginning...

Ammon Shea: They stop if they see...

Neil Serven: ... Mistakes at the beginning that were done early in the stage of compiling the dictionary, then they might be less likely to.

Emily Brewster: You want to be in your groove by the time you get to A, and I wonder what the order of defining was for the Second Unabridged. What if dord was one of the last entries? What if D was, "They're coming down to the final..."

Neil Serven: It was coming down and they were reading the deadline, meeting the deadline and they were like, "The heck with this. It's probably just going to... Let it go."

Emily Brewster: That information is knowable, but I don't know it.

Peter Sokolowski: I don't know either. It was the biggest mass produced book, I guess, in American publishing history. And it was sort of supposed to be the kitchen sink. It was supposed to be sort of your home internet, if you will, at the time. So, it had all the vocabulary words, but had a huge number of what we would call today, encyclopedic entries or proper nouns that are entered in there. So the actual nature of this reference book was supposed to be kind of the one and only guide to everything. And then the gazetteer and atlas and everything you could imagine to huge doorstop and obviously subsequently the bigger problem became what to remove. There were so many things that were just nonce words or encyclopedic terms that were dropped.

Ammon Shea: East Indian shrubs. There are so many East Indian shrubs in the second edition.

Peter Sokolowski: Is that true?

Ammon Shea: A huge number.

Peter Sokolowski: Wow.

Ammon Shea: It was one of the first dictionary they ever read cover to cover. And I just remember thinking it was a really profusion, a thorough cataloging of East Indian shrubs.

Peter Sokolowski: But it's a beloved edition, and people love it. I love it.

Ammon Shea: Yeah. It's called the poet's dictionary. And not just because of the East Indian shrubs.

Peter Sokolowski: No. It's because of the language, of the definitions, which were still complete sentences back then.

Ammon Shea: But then there are also a huge number of words that are kind of poetic in nature. There are words which were removed based on being archaic or so.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Ammon Shea: And so, I think there's a higher proportion of obscure literary words. It has perhaps my all time favorite word. I may have mentioned on this podcast before. People always like to say, "Do you have a favorite word?" Finding word prediction. I never had a favorite word for years and years. I always wanted to have a favorite word, but, all words are beautiful. And in the Webster's Second Edition, I came across what was in fact, my favorite word, which is not just poetic, but it comes from a great poem from Homer and it's ucalegon. And it is defined as "a neighbor whose house is on fire." And I thought "This is a word worthy of being my favorite word. Finally, I can say I've got a favorite word." Who amongst us has not ever wanted to use this word? Who amongst us has not at some point in time thought, "I wished that was my..."

Neil Serven: Or write a poem with it. Instead of helping our neighbor, whose house is on fire.

Ammon Shea: That's from the second. And no other dictionary I've ever seen had that. So, buy a copy if you're looking for a great dictionary, buy the copy that has dord and ucalegon.

(music break)

Emily Brewster: You are listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back with the oft annoying awesome after the break. Word Matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Neil Serven: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history or meaning of a word. Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day. A brief look at the definition and history of one word available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: One sure fire way to annoy people who care deeply about language, is to give a serious word a new and not so serious use. Hand-wringing among those who know the words, history is sure to ensue, while the young ones just think the new thing is awesome. Here's Ammon Shea with the story of that very one. Awesome.

Ammon Shea: There are many things that people say, word choices that people make, which kind of indicate which side of a particular age divide that they're on. And, a lot of times, these tend to be kind of anger based choices, whether they're angry about something or just pleased by something. And one of the clearest examples of that, that I know of, is the word awesome. And whether something is awesome because it tastes good or whether something is awesome because it is in fact productive of awe. As an illustration of this, I'd like to quote a tweet from Neil deGrasse Tyson in which he said, "In my day," and I'm imagining his voice, "In my day, the word awesome was reserved for things like curing polio and walking on the moon, not for food or TV shows." I'd like to give an example, a written example of the kind of awesome that Neil deGrasse Tyson finds so objectionable and, of course, in order to do so, I'm going to quote a tweet by Neil deGrasse Tyson, "Of course, in the 1998 film Armageddon, the asteroid chunks had awesome aim, hitting all the great cities of the world." So here we have kind of point and counterpoint, courtesy of one of our most beloved scientists. So where do you guys fall on the awesome divide?

Neil Serven: Well, maybe reflective of my age, but to me, awesome is right in my hotspot. When I was 10 years old, it was the word everybody was using.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely.

Neil Serven: "I saw an awesome movie." "That's an awesome bike you got." I associate it with BMX bicycles and Honeycomb commercials and...

Ammon Shea: All the good things in life.

Neil Serven: All the good things in life, Knight Rider and all that. So, I am definitely of the later sense of awesome.

Emily Brewster: I remember it being objected to when I was growing up. I remember people complaining specifically in church. I remember it being a topic during multiple sermons, that only God should be awesome.

Neil Serven: But there's also a clinging to the importance of awe there, right?

Emily Brewster: Yes.

Neil Serven: Is about what church is about. You have something that you should be in awe of.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Ammon Shea: Well, that's really great. But one of the things that's kind of nice about that, is that the original meaning of awe from the 12th century, which is now obsolete, was "intense fear, dread, or terror." And it very often was used in a religious context. And so awesome was not the Grand Canyon awesome. Awesome was "I'm going to strike you dead and salt your land with..."

Emily Brewster: Right. You're a pillar of salt for looking back.

Ammon Shea: In 1578, John Rolland, in one of the earliest uses of awesome in The Seven Sages of Rome wrote about "how that we do provoke his awesome ire." And it really got him speaking of a vengeful God. Even in the 17th century, Samuel Rutherford's Christ Dying, "He has the ceremony of death's approaching, of the noise of its feet, of its awesome and dreadful gloom." This was not awesome in a positive sense. This was awesome as in, you're about to get dragged away to hell, then eternal torment kind of feeling.

Emily Brewster: Not awesome.

Ammon Shea: Not at all awesome. It's such an interesting word because one of the things that people will distinguish between awesome and awful, but we don't really say any more, like, you shouldn't say awful is bad because it's not full of awe. We don't apply the same stricture to awful that we often do to awesome. People used to have that kind of requirement for awful. Hester Piozzi, in 1794, said of awful, "It should be used with caution and a due sense of its importance. I have heard even well-bred ladies now and then it should be that term too lightly in their common conversation." A usage book from 1899, The Correct Word, says, "Awful means inspiring with awe. Incorrect uses of this word are found in colloquial speech as an awful dinner." And so nothing is new under the sun because, I'm sure they were talking about the thing that they used complain about with awe. So people used to complain about awful not being full of awe. Now we're fine with it. And then people decided to complain about awesome, not being full of awe.

Peter Sokolowski: There's an example in our dictionary from George Eliot in the sense that you just talked about, inspiring awe, and the sentence is, "The presence of nature in all her awful loveliness." Isn't that interesting? That's the way we might use awesome in a more conventional way. And yet I would trip over this and it is surprising.

Ammon Shea: Sure. If you look at the order of senses that we have for awful, we have extremely disagreeable... And then the next one is exceedingly great. And then we have inspiring awe and then obsolete. We have afraid and terrified. If you were unfamiliar with context or the history of the word, this would be a deeply confusing thing to come across. But we also see this with kind of extended uses of the word awfully, for instance, "He performed awfully" has a clear negative meaning clear to us. And then "That's awfully kind of you" has a clear positive meaning.

Emily Brewster: Awfully there is just really an intensive.

Peter Sokolowski: "An awful lot of money", is basically an intensifier, right? It just makes the word lot more lot.

Ammon Shea: But, awesome did have, for hundreds of years, obviously, it had that sense that people will want to kind of restrict it to the Grand Canyon, the glory of nature, or God, whatever sense. And it did, then in the 19th century, it kind of moved into a weakened negative sense_. And then the beginnings, I think, of the weakened positive sense come up in the early 20th century. There was a nice citation from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, "an awesome plan of campaign is presented on paper by the rebels in which the capture of Havana is talked of as easy and certain." I don't think they really mean awesome thundering trumpets and wrath of God kind of awesome. They mean something more than nifty, noteworthy.

Emily Brewster: I knew we were going to be talking about this today. And I was looking at LexisNexis and what it has for early examples of awesome, and starting in the 1930s, their sources are very limited for that period of time. But the earliest example in LexisNexis currently is FDR using the word awesome. And then the next example is Truman. FDR used it once. Truman used it three times, Eisenhower three times, Kennedy twice, Johnson, five times, Nixon, twice. And in all of these cases, they were using the word to modify words like duty and power and responsibility. And it isn't until 1975, that LexisNexis has an example of awesome being used in the way that we're talking about right now. And it was in sports, and it was about the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was about them being really great. It was about being an awesome team that had a good chance in the Super Bowl. Now they had won the '75 Super Bowl and they did in fact, go on to win the '76 Super Bowl. I am from Pittsburgh. I was not there at the time, I will say, but I was very pleased that the first example in sports was about the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Neil Serven: For some of us, it's interesting that some of us might've had this strange experience of knowing the later sense first and then being surprised to discover the earlier sets.

Ammon Shea: "It means 'productive of awe.' Wow, who knew?"

Neil Serven: This is a rare instance where I remember where I encountered it. I've had a few instances where I remember where I learned a word for the first time and I can't say there's a lot of them, but I remember this other sense because I was so used to using awesome in my own vocabulary, just to mean really great. And it was usually for positive things. In the eighties, we happened to have the movie Superman III recorded on VHS. It's a terrible movie. It's got Richard Pryor and Robert Vaughn in it. Robert Vaughn is trying to destroy all the coffee crops in South America. Somehow, I can't remember exactly how, he creates this terrible storm that destroys all the coffee crops in Venezuela, Colombia, whatever and we see news footage. We see a news anchor talking about the storm. The anchor is quoting someone who was at the scene who says "it was the most awesome display of natural forces unleashed since Noah's Ark." And I thought to myself, what's so great about this? That lodged in my head. And of course, maybe the fact that it was recorded. And so I saw it a few more times because we played it on the tape. It lodged in my head that there was this other sense of awesome that is not what I was going for when I used it with my friends.

Emily Brewster: Not about Honeycombs at all.

Neil Serven: Not about Honeycombs.

Ammon Shea: It's great that Emily has the citation from 1975 and you are right in that same time period, because the earliest use that the Oxford English Dictionary attributes to what they think of as a kind of a sense that's even more weakened used by kids, for instance, they have a citation from Connie Elbe, who is this really great researcher. And she's a professor who had just retired at UNC, University of North Carolina. And for decades, what Connie would do, she would ask her students to give her lists of slang. And she kept these lists. And it's this amazing resource there for 30 or 40 years of really painstakingly documented changes in the language. And the earliest use that the OED has for this weakened sense of awesome is from Connie's lists in 1979.

Emily Brewster: No kidding.

Ammon Shea: The citation given is "awesome-fantastic." And so that's a very short definition, but it's an interesting definition because it brings to mind that we again complain about awesome, that we don't any longer complain about awful though we used to. We don't complain about fantastic meaning. That's great. We no longer say, "But it's based on fantasy is the real meaning." We don't any longer, perhaps we used to, but we no longer complain about fabulous no longer meaning of the nature of a fable, of a pertaining to fables. We no longer complain about wonderful meaning that to be wondered at. And there's a whole class of words.

Emily Brewster: We don't have to be amazed.

Ammon Shea: Right. There's an entire broad category of words, which more or less mean something that's really great that used to have distinctly different meanings. Awesome is one, but there are many others.

Emily Brewster: They tend to just start off with the slang as they first come to be used in this way to mean really great. It has a slang feel. The word sweet, like, "Ooh, sweet." That's still slangy. At some point, it's going to lose that veneer. And it's just going to be somebody's grandmother saying.

Ammon Shea: It's going to be awesome sooner or later.

Neil Serven: We can sometimes use negative words. And when we force them to have positive connotations, we do have seen bad, good, sick can mean really impressive, "some sick moves."

Ammon Shea: "Badass."

Neil Serven: So I think what happens is we really seek out creative language when we're trying to show how much we love something, and how impressed we are by something. We want to create that impression so we don't want to use a word that everybody already knows. We kind of want to get people's antenna up and show, "Oh wow. This person really looked for a new word to describe how great this thing was." And so they came up with awesome. They came up with fantastic. They came up with sick.

Peter Sokolowski: So it starts as a hyperbole. And then it becomes more familiar to everyone.

Ammon Shea: That's a really good explanation. I was going to say nothing has meaning anymore. Meaning has no meaning. There is no such thing as meaning.

Neil Serven: But then we have no jobs, Ammon.

Ammon Shea: Language is dead. (whispering) Don't tell them, don't tell anybody there is no meaning. There's no such thing.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple podcasts or send us an email at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Boyd. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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