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