By John Ochwat
December 21, 2011
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.
Wait, you expect us to believe you grew up in Canada and yet you produce an entire essay without a single “eh” in it?
But seriously. Your penultimate sentence with question mark is perfect. I could hear you saying it.
Finally, it occurs to me that the adjuster-dork might have thought you’d treat “total loss” day as a great day because it meant the insurance company wouldn’t force you to deal with the lowest bidder on a repair that could never succeed.
EPIC total loss.
OMG, this shit is some awesome writing. Also, you have to use the word ‘house’ in a sentence in your next essay (which you will provide us with as an mp3) and pronounce it ‘hoose.’ I listen to House Hunters for the sole purpose of hearing the word ‘hoose.’
Two awesome thumbs way up. Good stuff John.
Stupendous essay, John! I’m behind you a 150 percent! <— bugs the shit out of me.
OMG, I think my brother might be Canadian! Nothing would irritate my father more, than hearing my brother tell my mom that the meal she'd just prepared with loving care, (often hours of work) "wasn't half bad". We did grow up pretty close to Ontario…
I'll be sure to let my mom know that it is indeed some high praise.
I hope you have an awesome time car shopping.
Also, I’m wondering what someone might think desultory means. (Unlike penultimate (Hi Don!), a word I assumed I knew the meaning of, but had never looked up… until I made an ass of myself on a comment board. heh.)
Dana – I learned the dictionary meaning of desultory when a college writing teacher corrected it on a draft of mine, then admitting that she used it the same way until someone corrected her.
… and the new car is a Toyot-eh.
I loved this essay. Super-sized language. I guess I never thought of it that much.
You know what’s really, truly unbelievable, though? That Americans (don’t get me wrong; I love them and have no problem with the usual differences in language (example: petulantly disgarding “u”s and replacing “s”s with “z”s) so I feel bad being a Brit about to complain about those damn Americans and their bastardisation of our/i> language) say “I could care less.” It’s absurd and makes no sense. The phrase is, “I couldn’t care less.” As in, “I care so little that it would be impossible for me to care less.” Not, “Actually, I care a tiny little bit and therefore I could care less, but not much.”
Unless, maybe that’s an example of Americans accidentally understanding their opinion.
Aw crap… Accidental italics. Now I sound really sarcastic.
I’ve never had a problem with the u and s/z issues, and I rarely forget to use them when writing to or for those UK people. And metres and tonnes, no problem.
The one I have trouble with — not remembering to use it, but because even after many years it sounds so odd — is using the plural for corporations. “Apple have not yet announced a new Mac Pro.” “Bowers and Wilkins have brought their MM1 speakers to market” works for this US corporations-are-individuals ear, but “KEF have a new A/V package” is just too hard for me.
I’ve occasionally wondered about “I could care less” – maybe it’s an abbreviated sentence, like “I could care less, but it’d be difficult.”
Of course, the American pastime being to make fun of Canada for ever so constantly and earnestly seizing upon the most minor difference to insist it’s not America II.
That said, I’m Minnesotan and to most of America, indistinguishable from a Canadian, so I should probably watch my step.
I’m mostly in the business of explaining to my fellow countrymen that we don’t have polar bears.
this reminds me of when i went to live in england a few years back and the fella i was dating at the time and his dad (both british) warned me that “quite” and “rather” mean the opposite in england that they mean here and that i should watch my step because they take their adverbs quite seriously there (oh!).
i found it odd at that time that they would choose those 2 words to highlight for me because i didn’t think i used them that often, but i guess i did.
i think you canadians are way too british for your own good. that’ s why i love every one of you that i’ve met.
ps – writing this entire comment was probably the most painful thing i’ve done in long time as i am trying super-hard to avoid my, admittedly, favo(u)rite word. dammit.
pps – ah-LOO-mini-um. just for you.