Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Really devoted to awesome sausages

"You can't apply the word devoted to a sausage."
Ben to Kate in The Matchmaker of Kenmare by Frank Delaney

There aren't many light moments in Frank Delaney's novel, but this is one of them. Kate says, "I have become devoted to frankfurters," and Ben takes exception to her choice of words. "Devoted suggests a spiritual dimension," he argues.

And, indeed, the word once did suggest a spiritual dimension.Gradually, like the almighty dollar, the word became devalued until it could also be applied to one's country, one's lover, one favorite baseball team and, at last, sausages.

Many words have similarly become devalued with the passage of time. Awesome once referred to something that inspired awe, such as God, a cathedral, the heavens on a clear night or the Grand Canyon. Now anything, including unusually tasty frankfurters, can be described as awesome.

This probably has a lot to do with why the English language has so many synonyms. New words must be created to replace other words that have lost their value. Consider all the words for big: large, huge, great, gigantic, enormous, mammoth, etc. If you can describe a hamburger as enormous, then how do you describe a bull elephant? You need a different word. Thus we get words like ginormous entering the language.

After the events of 9-11, words like horrible and terrible seemed inadequate, even though they mean "inspiring horror" and "inspiring terror," and thus should have been perfect. So horrific became the most popular adjective in the new century. Already that word has lost its power through over use, and it will seem inadequate for the next great tragedy.

Rather than constantly discover new words, one option is to employ words like very and really to describe our descriptive words. Thus we often hear phrases like very awesome, really devoted or extra extra large. Perhaps after the next great tragedy, someone will call it "really horrific." That may have to do until the right word comes along, however temporarily

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