Urbandictionary.com describes “awesome” as “something Americans use to describe everything.” When something describes everything, it describes nothing.
I just got back from Inc. Magazine’s GrowCo convention in Nashville. Lots of useful, enjoyable, wonderful stuff there, as always, but I was stunned at how almost every speech by every presenter and almost every overheard or casual conversation was peppered with this unfortunate word: Awesome. It was inescapable, like a blanket of verbal kudzu choking out the variegated richness of the English language—so omnipresent it seemed like an acceptable substitute for just about any word at all. Awesome. Awesome. Awesome. Yeah, really awesome, man. It’s like a lingua franca of evanescent mush, a meme of meaninglessness masquerading as communication and cool.
Fact. People in Shakespeare’s time had working vocabularies of around 54,000 words. They actually talked like characters in Shakespeare’s plays. The working vocabulary of the average American is 3,000 words and, I suspect, declining.
So, is “awesomeness” the beginning of the end for nuanced, accurate business communication? Does it render exact words irrelevant, mute, and dead? Does the practicing and practical entrepreneur even need words and vocabulary to be awesome?
Well, yes. For innovation and thinking we absolutely need words. As German philosopher Martin Heidegger put it, “Language is the house of being.” There is no being outside of language. Without words we are grunting our way to Gomorrah. The more impoverished our language, the less our ability to be innovative, growing, effective human beings. As Steve Jobs memorably put it about his own entrepreneurial company, “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”
Perhaps one of the reasons business persons default to the use of “awesome” for their writing and conversations may be that they have not been trained in language as an essential business skill. Arthur Levitt, former Charman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and Bloomberg commentator, has been on a jihad about business language and communication. He calls much of business speech and business writing “incomprehensible.” He states, “[Business communication] lacks color and nuance, and it’s not terribly interesting to read.”
I believe it is utterly tragic that STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) curriculum seems to be routing the liberal arts—English, history, philosophy, psychology, et. al. I understand that students want to have a good immediate job when they graduate, but that is short term thinking. Especially for incipient entrepreneurs and business leaders. Even engineers, coders, and quants need words for genuine thinking. Without the right word and the right use of words there can be no right thinking; there can be no accurate perception; there can be no exactitude. Words give a context, a reality, a structure for logic, innovation, and our “eureka” moments. Language creates a long-term ability to understand and cope with a brave new world moving and changing at the speed of light. It gives us a context to see the forest, as well as the trees.
So, the use of “awesome” as a default word for just about everything is a killer of business accuracy and clarity. It bespeaks imprecision, inaccuracy, comfort with non-communication, and impoverishment of imagination. “Awesome” is not cool. It is not outre. It is not out-of-the-box. It is mindless, shallow, slothful, ersatz, and, ultimately, disrespectful of anyone you are speaking to. I would suggest it is a good word for any entrepreneur to shake from her sandals.
Words are not irrelevant in a post-Jetsons world. They are ever illuminating. They are necessary. They are the house of the truth of being. They are grandiloquent, magnificent, magical, stupendous, fabulous, unbelievable, and extraordinary. These words have meaning. Awesome does not.