“The tide of awesome is definitely rising,” says Tim Hwang, the San Francisco-based founder of the Awesome Foundation, an international organization that gives monthly grants to anyone with an awesome idea. Indeed, awesome has handily supplanted amazing as the exuberant adjective of our time, and managed to stake its claim as a noun in the process. Which is a bit of awesome.
Writing in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago, Sam Sifton referred to the cheese in a greasy meat sub as “melting awesomeness.” A benefit gala for the Child Development Institute in Toronto this month is called “An Evening of Awesome.” The dress code is “casual elegant, with a hint of ‘awesome!’ ”
Neil Pasricha, author of the hugely popular blog 1000 Awesome Things, is partly to blame for the word’s increasing popularity. His Book of Awesome, which came out last year, is a bestseller. He’ll be on the Today show in May to preach the gospel of awesome and promote The Book of Even More Awesome, which comes out at the end of this month. And he’s in talks with both The Office and Martha Stewart to bring some awesome to the small screen.
In naming the Awesome Foundation, Hwang said the word captured the organization’s aims perfectly. “Awesome conveys surprise and delight, and that’s at the core of what we’re trying to do. Awesome isn’t necessarily frivolous, but it does convey a sense of fun.” Awesome also co-opts all dissenters. “The good thing is that you can’t really be against the Awesome Foundation, because then you’d be not awesome, and no one wants that,” said Hwang. The foundation’s Toronto chapter had 250 applications for grants in its first month. And two new Awesome Foundation chapters have just started in Beirut and Sri Lanka.
Last month, he and his Awesome Foundation colleagues incorporated a non-profit, the Institute on Higher Awesome Studies, in Massachusetts. The aim of this official arm is to grant larger and longer-term grants. The goal, Hwang said, “is to research sustainable methods for generating awesome in an economy.”
For Pasricha, whose book chronicles fortuitous minutiae like a cashier opening up a new line at a busy checkout, the boss going out of town or finding a $20 bill in your pocket, awesome lends poetry to the everyday. Where awesome used to conjure up a Caspar David Friedrich painting of epic ocean storms, Pasricha’s brand is more like a Norman Rockwell sketch of everyday life unfolding as it should. “All of us spend our lives focused on the big things: grad school and jobs and weddings. We lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of pleasure will come from the first bite of hot pizza or when you flip to the cold side of the pillow in the middle of the night,” he said. Pasricha gets 50 emails a day from awesome disciples around the world, sending suggestions for his blog or cheerful affirmations, offerings like “dunking Danish butter cookies into your morning coffee” or “puppy breath” (an awesome only dog lovers can appreciate).
To attribute all this awesome to some sort of cultural shift would be folly, but at the same time it’s hard not to suspect that there’s more unabashed enthusiasm for the simple things than there used to be. Perhaps a few years of recession have lowered the awesome bar. There’s also the fact that we share every bit of our lives these days, so much so that a photo of a perfect meal or a sunny day elicits lots of awesomes from a peanut gallery of friends passing the day online.
Yet another reason for awesome’s metastasizing popularity is that it’s an earworm of a word—once it’s in your head, it’s almost impossible not to use. “I say it way too much,” said Hwang. “I cautiously stop myself from saying it.”
“Definitely awesome has become considerably more frequent in the past 50 years,” said Katherine Barber, the founding editor of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and resident word lady at katherinebarber.blogspot.com. “The original use of awesome was full of awe, which carried on from 1600 to 1950. I sing in a church choir. We sing about the awesome power of God and we giggle when we do that.”
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