Everything isn't always awesome

Awesome. How many times have you used that word today? This week? In either case, if the answer is more than three, it's highly likely you're using it inaccurately.

Awe-inspiration is something that should happen only a handful of times in your life. The original meaning – which still forms the primary dictionary definition – indicates something so impressive that you're daunted, overwhelmed or brimming with wonder.

There are probably only three things that should leave you feeling like this: God, the Great Barrier Reef and Geri Halliwell's audacious attempt at a solo career. That last one was a joke, and a less-than-awesome one at that.

Agreeing that you'll meet at three o'clock is not awesome (that's “convenient”), nor is an invitation to the beach (that's “welcoming”) or an enjoyable meal (that's “delicious”). Awesome is not your train arriving on time (again, that's “convenient”) or watching a good film (that's “enjoyable”) or a workmate offering to do the coffee run (that's “kind”). These are all things I've heard being described as apparently awe-inspiring so far in 2014.

Nor does it help matters when the kids' movie du jour, The Lego Movie, is headlined by an absurdly catchy ditty titled Everything Is Awesome, reinforcing to both this generation and the next that wanton hyperbole is, well, awesome.

But where do we go from there? Our diction is full of worn out clichés. Other hyperbolic buzz words include “iconic”, “cult”, “classic”, “legendary”, “immense”, “outstanding” and “amazing”. All are superlatives, but which have gradually seeped into everyday use.

The very fact that they're superlative means we shouldn't be using them daily, or even monthly – or we risk defacing them. Only a limited number of things should be iconic, outstanding or classic. Immense means bigger than anything you've ever seen. A true legend takes years to build up.

Overusing these words means the potency of their original meaning is being eroded. Using them generously (and inaccurately) is devaluing our language, leaving us bankrupt of appropriate adjectives when a truly remarkable event does actually happen.

Professor John Hajek from the University of Melbourne's School of Languages and Linguistics says the over-laboured use of superlatives is a common pattern across languages. "A word might start life just being used for effect. Then the more it gets used, its impact weakens.”

The opposite can also be true, Hajek says, with a word's original meaning strengthened over time and laboured use. “Decimate used to be a military term, specifically meaning to kill one in 10. Over time, it has come to mean severely reduce or destroy almost completely,” he says.

Men, in particular, have a tendency to use hyperbolic language that asserts authority without slipping too far into more frivolous exclamation. So we'll generally avoid “totes”, “OMG”, “YOLO” and “LOLZ”, unless we want to sound like a teenager's diary (or, of course, we're being totes ironic.)

However, modern linguistic research (specifically Deborah Cameron's The Myth of Mars and Venus) suggests gendered generalisations such as this can be somewhat oveplayed. Perhaps, then, we need to let go of the gendered stereotypes we place on certain terms.

So if men or women alone aren't the culprits of this vernacular vandalism, where does our semantic scapegoat live?

It certainly lives in the office. Would you really be amazed if I responded with the information you need by close of business? Struck with awe if I sent that email by Tuesday? Staggered if I made that telephone call before the deadline? Would these things flabbergast you – or just help you? If you want me to do these things, don't bring out the big guns (“that'd be amazing / awesome”), just ask me normally. I'll still do them for you – and probably without the grammar geek's eye roll.

The scapegoat also lives in the media. Journalists are not exercising enough caution with the lavish accolades they're bestowing on everyday items, events and people. In the last six months, the Albion bike shop, The Facebook 'like' button, the Moke beach buggy, Carols in the Domain, St Kilda's former Stokehouse restaurant and serial killer Mick Taylor in Wolf Creek 2 have all been described by Fairfax journalists as “iconic”.

Of course, the meanings of words change constantly. That's one of the very things that makes language so fascinating as it evolves, innovates and refreshes. But linguistic conservatism is justified when preserving the best of the best adjectives for the rare occasions something genuinely amazing occurs. And surely we can ration the number of icons we worship and report on. Wouldn't that be awesome? You already know the answer.