Usage Notes

Can a Dinner Be 'Amazing'?

On semantic bleaching and the power to amaze

What makes a thing amazing? Must it be possessed of the power to amaze? If so, what sense of amaze are we talking about here? Is it the one meaning “to fill with bewilderment”? Or is it “to fill with terror or alarm”? Or simply “to fill with wonder”? Perhaps most importantly, can amazing be used to describe your dinner? It is the weighty questions such as this that keep a dictionary going through the long and lonely Massachusetts winters. 

is amazing overused

This one seems pretty nice, at least.

There is no question that people do in fact use amazing to modify quotidian and banal topics such as ‘dinner,’ for if no one was using the word in this way there would be no complaints about it. And there are a lot of complaints about amazing. Many of these quibbles center on the fact that your dinner was not, in point of fact, filled with the power to bewilder, alarm, or strike with wonder; it was merely a nice dinner.

In fairness to amazing, it is hardly the only word in this semantic class that has become coarsened and cheapened by such prandial use. You can have a terrific meal without it having caused fear, a fantastic one without it involving fantasy, and a fabulous one even if it was in no way connected to fables, even though these were the original meanings of all of these words before semantic bleaching got to them. In fairness to those who are tired of hearing about your amazing meal, the word has changed quite a bit since it came on the scene. Our earliest evidence for amazing, which occurs at the end of the 16th century, tends to use the word as an indication of great wonder or dread.

What colours of astonishing Rhetorique, or rauishing Poetry, more deeply engrained, then some of his amazing deuises; the fine dittyes of an other Petrarch, or the sweet charmes of pure enchantment?
— Gabriel Harvey, A new letter of notable contents, 1593 

This certaine story, of too certaine ill, 
Did not extinguish, but gaue honor fier, 
Th' amazing prodigie, (bane of my quill,) 
Bred not astonishment, but a strong desier, 
By which this heauen-adopted Knights strong will….
— Gervase Markham, The most honorable tragedie of Sir Richard Brinuile, 1595

God in thy good cause make thee prosperous, 
Be swift like lightning in the execution, 
And let thy blowes doubly redoubled, 
Fall like amazing thunder on the caske 
Of thy aduerse pernitious enemy….
— William Shakespeare, The tragedie of King Richard, 1597

It should be noted that many of the people who complain about amazing are not taking issue with the fact that the word has shifted its meaning so much as they are just tired of the word. This is a perfectly reasonable sentiment, and we all get tired of certain words. A hundred years ago a good many people were complaining about the overuse of the word nice.

Improperly used to express every kind and degree of admired and appreciated quality; as, ‘a nice time,’ ‘a nice horse,’ ‘a nice rain,’ ‘a nice man,’ ‘a nice sermon,’ ‘a nice funeral.’
Funk and Wagnalls Faulty Diction, 1917

You may use amazing to describe your breakfast, lunch, dinner, or any other meal you feel like having. People have been matching this word with dinner for well over two hundred years now.

After dinner, when the fruit was set upon the table, any one would have supposed, that so far from having eaten an amazing dinner, Miss Maria had not had any, for she devoured apples, pears and nuts, together with almonds and raisins and oranges, so as perfectly to astonish the moderate and simple Constantia.
— Elizabeth Sibthorpe Pinchard, The Two Cousins, 1794

Please observe that we are saying that you can use amazing (if that’s really how you feel) to describe pretty much anything you want, but that this is not at all the same thing as our saying that you should do so.



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