I was first in a checkout to pay for two large cans of Maxwell House coffee with a rain check two months old.
The cashier explained my rain check needed to be initialled by the assistant manager. Whether all rain checks must be initialled, or only those redeemed long after the sales date, I didn’t know. The assistant manager was busy which meant waiting for him to come to the checkout.
Next in line behind me was a woman holding a copy of a Vancouver daily in one hand and coins in the other.
“I have time,” I said. “I don’t mind waiting,” and stepped aside to let the lady buy her newspaper while I waited.
“Awesome!” the cashier said. Never before had anyone called me awesome. I glowed.
The lady stepped forward and paid for her Province newspaper with exact cash.
“Awesome!” the cashier said, rang up the sale and tucked the newspaper in a plastic bag.
What, I wondered, was so awesome about counting out exact pennies to buy a newspaper? Was the cashier expressing her appreciation for not having to wait while the customer swiped a credit card? Or for not having to make change?
About then, the assistant manager arrived. The cashier explained to him I had this two-month old rain check. He scrawled his initials on the slip and pocketed his ballpoint. “Awesome!” the cashier said.
And why was he awesome? That he could write his own initials? That he came supplied with his own ballpoint? (How many stores have I been in where they have only one ballpoint shared by all the staff? I’ve had to wait while the hunt goes on to find who ran off with the ballpoint now.)
When I exited the store hugging my two cans of coffee, the glow from being praised as awesome had cooled to a smoldering resentment at the indiscriminate use of the word ‘awesome’. People sprinkle it through conversations as randomly as the four letter ‘f’ word.
My annoyance with ‘awesome’ peaked a year ago while I was taking an online writing course; students were encouraged to offer feedback. But often feedback consisted of “Awesome!” which I argued gave no guidance to the student towards writing another piece equally awesome, because the word lacked specificity and thus any hint of what made the piece awesome.
Was the piece awesome for its use of proper nouns? Descriptive verbs? Was the piece funny? Did it evoke tears, revive memories, stir buried emotions?
Following my criticism, student controversy went on entry after entry. Like comments posted in online newspapers, they deteriorated into name calling, and snide remarks about areas wide of the subject.
In the end, the word ‘awesome’ ceased to pepper critiques, replaced instead by down-to-earth terms with particular meanings.
Four months later, The Writer magazine published an article about the best way to offer criticism in a writers’ group. Author Joni B. Cole advised – “If the discussion goes no deeper than generalities (‘I was bored’; or ‘Good job!”), push for more.”
I saw my opening and I took it, writing a brief letter to the magazine about my ‘awesome’ online experience.
The Writer printed my letter In its September 2010 issue. In its May 2011 issue, the magazine excerpted “Superlatives 101” from Arthur Plotnik’s book “Better Than Great”. He has compiled 5774 alternatives to ‘awesome’. Arthur Plotnik and I don’t stand alone.
Matt Richardson of Make Magazine used a Staples’ large red “Easy” button to create an “Awesome” button which plugs into your computer and will insert a random synonym for ‘awesome’ whenever you need one. Just hit the button.