'Wicked' weird word changes

The search for effective words is a persistent battle to avoid the over-used. And never more so than in attempts to convey extreme admiration or approval.

A mild word is probably better fitted for survival than a hyperbolic one. "Good," "fine," and "excellent" still carry some power, being quietly serviceable. But how much punch do exclamations like "Astounding!" "Wonderful!" "Stupendous!" "Amazing!" or "Phenomenal!" pack anymore? Aren't they perhaps going the way of "Great!" and "Terrific!" - piled on the sad scrapheap where tired words languish, hoping for a new life someday?

The very young espouse words like latest-craze toys. "Awesome!" or "Wicked!" flourish crazily for a season, only to retire as suddenly as they arrived, like ninja turtles.

Many words of praise strikingly contradict their earlier meanings.

"Amazing," for instance, in its obsolete meanings (going back to the 16th century) signified "causing distraction, consternation, confusion, dismay."

Its more "modern" meaning of "wonderful, great beyond expectation" is not particularly new, however. It was used in the 18th century. It probably changed meaning because of the growing belief in the sublimity of natural phenomena such as mountains and storms as a positive rather than a negative experience.

The "Awesome!" of today, or of the day-before-yesterday, probably derives unconsciously from similar origins. It was mainly a Scottish word, and it meant either "profoundly reverential" or "appalling, dreadful, weird." The 1992 Third Edition of The American Heritage Dictionary gives as the word's third definition: "Slang Remarkable; outstanding."

It is a kid's word, of course, that no self-respecting adult could utter except as a joke. If you want to seriously suggest that something inspires awe today, this word is unavailable.

The progress or regress of language is wicked. It shows no respect for the strictures of die-hard pundits, pedants, or dictionary zealots. Indeed, I even use the word "wicked" in trepidation of being misunderstood, or at least thought unbelievably outdated. But it has not always meant "Astounding!" "Wonderful!" "Stupendous!" "Amazing!" or "Phenomenal!"

It used to mean "inclined to willful wrong-doing." In the bad old days.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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