I do not shy away from using superlatives. Instead of, “thank you, that would suit my taste nicely,” if someone offers me anything that pleases me I’m generally much more likely to blurt, “perfect!” even though I know perfectly well that almost nothing in this universe is in fact demonstrably perfect. Quite the contrary, I should think.
But I do get a bit tired of hearing extreme words bandied about with such frequency in less-than-worthy circumstances that they can quickly become meaningless. If I am trying to pay anyone a compliment, it would sadden me to be unable to find a single proper turn of phrase worthy of the occasion because all of the fitting terms are so watered down and hackneyed by then that whatever I say will end up sounding like sidelong sarcasm. I hear people described as geniuses often enough that it would seem my own modestly strong intellect is actually appallingly lowbrow in comparison with the general population’s much more impressive IQ average. Even calling people brilliant, unless they’re visibly beaming with phosphorescence or incandescence, is probably overdoing it; most of the time I’ll bet it’s something that a fine yet ordinary person did or said or thought in a specific instance that was brilliant, shining so brightly in part precisely because of its having appeared in the setting of its less sparkling human source. Isn’t that spectacular enough? Most of us never get to think, do or say anything wildly impressive and distinctive in our entire lives, so why not appreciate the rarity and beauty of each occurrence of such brilliance without flattening it out through excessive flattery.
“Awesome” is one of my most mourned of these half-dead words. The popular practice of calling all good things Awesome not only tends to defy the full meaning of the word as breathtaking, wildly impressive, and awe-inspiring, but makes it sound fatuous and empty to call anything genuinely deserving the title Awesome. I was reminded of this the other day when, on the drive home, I was startled to see what looked like a four-meter-tall stalk of asparagus growing in a neighbor’s front garden, right by the road. It was the flowering spike of a ‘century plant‘—a magnificent blue-leaved agave of the sort that grows to rather massive proportions in its native climates (Texas included), though only for about 1 to 3 decades rather than an actual century. The centennial reference is to the habit of this beautiful but spiny plant, in that it bears, only once in its lifetime, such an impressive tree-like stem as this that can sometimes reach eight meters in height, and when it’s reached its peak it bursts, almost frighteningly quickly, into a firework of magnificent, prehistoric looking yellow flowers, and then dies, leaf rosette and all, with the exception of whatever offshoots it has meanwhile nursed to, quite literally, supplant it.
And let me tell you, the sight of one of these beautiful monsters rocketing into bloom in my very own neighborhood is not only tremendously surprising, it is awesome. It is a rare and showy natural oddity and worthy of jaw-dropping, gasping, stomping on the brakes very suddenly, awe. So I’m here to tell you, if you weren’t already fully aware of it, that I have no hesitation about using any and every superlative I can dredge up when I think the occasion calls for it. I’ll keep trying to be more accurate and varied in my terminology so as not to denude the language of its full use. But, admittedly, I’ll keep falling down on the job like most others do. I’m not perfect, after all.