Word Watch: If everything is ‘amazing,’ then what’s left to amaze us?

Member Group : James Edwards: Word Watch

Two months ago, the Word Watch column began with James M. Edwards’ "The Hanging ‘Here’ Is Not Music to My Ears." Today Mr. Edwards, a Squirrel Hill resident, returns with another linguistic investigation.

It’s everywhere you look, it seems, everywhere you are:

An advertisement on TV for Universal Theme Parks in Florida: "Two amazing theme parks!"

A Campbell’s soup advertisement on television ends by calling it "the soup with amazing taste."

The cruise director, while introducing the captain, calls him "an amazing captain, and an even better friend."

A local Pontiac dealer, just last week, ended a radio spot for cars with: "… and even more amazing deals on the Internet!"

A full-page ad in The New York Times Book Review for some gizmo screams: "Effects of stress reversed by amazing new medical device." 30-day free trial.

Are we this easily amazed?

Between 1775 and 1779, Franz Anton Mesmer, a Swabian German, had already scandalized Vienna with his theory of animal magnetism, the belief that physical and mental maladies were related to the phases of the moon and the tides. He arrived in Paris to scandalize the French.

His "treatments" were proto-hypnosis, but he gathered passionate believers and pessimistic critics in equal measure. He is the man from whose name "mesmerize" was coined. He mesmerized women, preponderantly young women, which many believe was not a good thing. His treatments were discredited, and he died in relative oblivion.

But today, we say that the film that we watched, or the story that we read, was "mesmerizing." That implies it was a good thing. Strange.

Saying super-amazing or extra-amazing is unnecessary and redundant, as awkward as "really awesome!"

I scanned my daughter’s high school yearbook, published last summer, for the girls’ written entries. By this time I’d decided this was a "chick thing":

Girl 1: "u amaze me and I will miss you next year."

Girl 2: "I am so lucky to have gone through it all with such an amazing person."

Girl 3: "You have been an amazing friend to me. You are an amazing person."

Girl 4: "Swim team: You have amazing coaches and captains."

Enough, already. In this usage, "amazing" seems to impart a meaning of "unquestionably, indescribably, good" or "Don’t even ask me how good."

Not long ago amazing was value-neutral, neither good nor bad. My old Webster’s says: Stupefy, bewilder, confound. But an Internet dictionary of much more recent vintage says "inspire awe or admiration as in ‘New York is an amazing city.’ " Back when to be amazed was like being mesmerized, it wasn’t good. Now to be amazed is to be unquestionably good.

And "amazing" even gets dressed up and goes uptown.

My son’s college sent a fund-raising brochure featuring praise of the school, and a speech by a world-renowned professor also praising it. While praising the college, he uses the word "great" or "greatest" eight times, "extraordinary" five times, and the word "amazing" three times. "Absolutely" gets two, and "remarkable," "inspired," "brilliant" and "legendary" each get one.

And the use of amazing stood out, because in each instance the professor used it to describe a student, or the college’s students as a group: "[The college’s] resources let us make the impossible possible for our amazing students" or, during a story about helping a student: "We have this guy and he’s amazing." Finally: "And their amazing students keep transforming everything …" Even this renowned professor can’t summon more adjectives, more specific or more varied, than to call these kids "amazing."

At this point, one has to suspect that something deeper may be at work.

"Amazing" describing used cars, or used by teenage girls to describe their parents, teachers and friends, or by a lofty professor to describe the students: Could some levity be implied? Could its use really be implying the notion that the user is saying: "Of course we know these cars are used. Of course we know parents and teachers have cooties"? And the lofty professor: "Of course we know that these students aren’t as smart as I am. That’s why they pay here, and I earn." So he puts them in their place by using the label: Amazing!

All this is to say:

Advertisers, teenage girls, professors — let’s be more varied, and more eloquent where praise is concerned; excellence calls for excellent praise.