Not long ago, some bozo rear-ended my wife. He wasn’t going fast enough to injure her, but he was driving a pickup, and his bumper sailed over the bumper of our sedan and caved in the trunk and one of the quarter-panels. It caused more damage than the value of the car, and when the insurance adjuster left us a voicemail with news of the appraisal, he described it as a “total loss.” Then at the end of the message he said, “Have a great day.”
As a result of the accident, my wife had to miss our son’s basketball game. Both of us had to take the car to the appraiser, who looked at it for about five seconds before predicting, correctly, that it was doomed. Our car ran perfectly, had low miles for its age, and was fuel-efficient. It was even kind of fun to drive. Now my wife is in a rental that smells, which led me to the hardware store in search of an air-freshener tree, which led to a moment in the aisle where I wondered which scent best masked the smell of piss: Pine, Cinnamon-Apple, or “Vanillaroma”? And then I endured another foul-smelling experience — that of buying a car.
None of that occurred to the insurance adjuster, who was immune to cognitive dissonance. Your car is a total loss … have a great day? Unless I’m missing something, learning that your car is destroyed is not a key ingredient in a great day. I would have liked to ask the clerk what would have to happen to upgrade the day from gloomy to great. Would I sign a book deal that included movie rights? Buy a winning lottery ticket?
But the clerk wasn’t really being an idiot, because as everyone knows, saying “Have a great day” is only a custom. When I was a kid, I had a t-shirt that said, “Have a Nice Day.” The saying was accompanied with a yellow smiley face. Then two unrelated things happened: Walmart turned the yellow smiley into one of their creepy corporate icons. And the adjective “nice” lost its luster, making people trawl their mental thesauruses for something a little punchier. Have a good day. Have a great day.
Which explains the unwritten meaning of that insurance adjuster’s statement: He didn’t actually mean great, as in a tryst with Scarlett Johansson, or a MacArthur Genius Grant; he meant great as in nice or good. To say nice is to damn the day with faint praise. In our day and age, great is the new nice.
But great is showing signs of adjective-fatigue as well. And besides, it’s a notch below real enthusiasm, the kind you’d express by saying, “Have an awesome day.”
It’s probably worthless to get all grammarian and point out that the word awesome is supposed to mean something pretty different. Picture the Old-Testament God when his gout is acting up, pitching thunderbolts and quaking the earth. Before surfers got hold of the word, it meant capable of inspiring awe, in a soil-yourself kind of way. Besides, words change meanings all the time, and there are plenty whose meanings are so often misunderstood (e.g., desultory), that it’s actually more common to hear them used with their imagined meaning instead of their actual one.
But this isn’t really a new meaning, it’s overwrought usage, something Americans are awesome at. Having grown up in Canada, I have abundant first-hand evidence of this.
Witness how “Have a nice day” supersized itself to “Have a great day,” and “Customer satisfaction” smarmed its way to “customer delight.” Movies used to get two thumbs up; now they get “two thumbs way up” (I guess ordinary thumb-erections are no longer sufficiently virile).
If Americans bestow superlatives like confetti, Canadians are often stingier with theirs, if only to be contrarian. In fact, I would argue — with all the scholarship and authority of a guy who dated a girl who took linguistics classes — that Canadians cast almost all of theirs as negatives. A handy chart:
|Pretty bad||The world is ending|
|Bad||Washing my Xanax down with Prozac|
|Not half bad||OMG!|
|Not half bad at all||Incredibly, unbelievably, stupefyingly, staggeringly amazingly awesome topped with awesomesauce!!!|
I’m not saying either is necessarily better. Not long ago I was watching a sports highlight so impressive I watched it three times, and then dragged my wife over to see it. The Canadian sports anchor described it as “Not too shabby.” (This is not out of character. Only in Canada could there be a joke about a man walking into a tailor’s shop on a beautiful spring morning, and asking for a suit “in a bright shade of grey.”)
But back to the great and awesome subject. There are obvious problems with reaching for ever more whiz-bangy adjectives. First is what I’d call the alcoholic’s problem: you have to keep using more and more just to get the same buzz.
Second, trying to out-awesome awesome is a bit like that irritating kids’ game of numeric one-upsmanship:
— “Infinity plus four.”
— “Oh yeah? Infinity plus five.”
Third, plenty of people think awesome is pretty un-awesome. If you don’t believe me, trust the awesome power of the Urban Dictionary:
awesome: 1) Something Americans use to describe everything. 2) A ‘sticking plaster’ word used by Americans to cover over the huge gaps in their vocabulary. It is one of the three words which make up most American sentences. The American vocabulary consists of just three words: Omygod, awesome and shit.
(By the way, complaining that Americans are uninformed and stupid is another cherished Canadian pastime. But after living in both places, I can assure you that the North American distribution of ignorance and stupidity is reasonably equal.)
But the problem that may doom awesome is probably the same one that was the death-knell of nice: the word has become humdrum. Witness an anecdote my friend told me after overhearing two teenagers. When one of them asked how her friend was, the girl said, “Awesome.” Her friend nodded and said, “Awesome’s good.”
If that’s the case, I’m not sure what happens next: Will an even more over-the-top descriptor rocket to the top of the adjective charts? Will there be an interregnum, or a brief mania where people try to tart up some mangy outlier the way they did with radical and tubular? Or will people find a way to offer creative, non-trite ways to offer each other little, appropriate benedictions? I’m rooting for the latter, though of course I don’t know the answer — and phoning my ex the linguist would be a tad awkward.
So sure, the book deal/winning lotto ticket/tryst with sex symbol would be incredible and life-changing, but let’s be realistic. When my day consists of working and applying for a damned car loan I just want it to go smoothly, to not be too much of a bother, and maybe have a few little grace notes.
In the old days, that counted as a nice day. If I could have one of those? That would be awesome.