When I saw the title of the new book by linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, Ascent of the A-Word, I assumed the word in question was "amazing." It's not. It's a two-syllable pejorative that ends in "hole." But the rise of "amazing" also deserves a book. That A-word has become the most overused and misused adjective in our collective vocabulary.
I'd say that the ascent of "amazing" was amazing, except that it's not, since it's common for Americans to go overboard with words that catch on, applying them with impunity in places they don't belong, like generic elevator music in ethnic restaurants. We did it with "awesome" not very long ago, and we've always done it with slang. I recently found a letter I wrote to a friend in the late 1960s. The word "groovy" appeared in virtually every sentence: I had a groovy apartment in a groovy neighborhood, and a groovy cat, and a very groovy girlfriend, and a groovy gig, and had just bought some groovy furnishings in a groovy thrift shop and scored some groovy drugs from a groovy new friend.
But pandemics of slang are usually short-lived and limited to a particular subculture. The "amazing" onslaught is more insidious because it is the verbal equivalent of Starbucks: it's everywhere, even where it's not really needed. And unlike slang terms, "amazing" is not some newly-minted invention. It's an actual word with an honorable history and a dictionary definition that's become tragically muddled in everyday use. When a real word is wantonly misused and indiscriminately applied, its meaning gets so diffuse that its intended purpose is obscured. There was no mistaking the meaning of "groovy," but nowadays, when I hear "amazing" I have to guess what the speaker means.
"Amazing" is a highly functional, eminently valuable adjective. Look it up. It means "causing great surprise or sudden wonder." Among its synonyms are astonishing, astounding, remarkable, wonderful, incredible, startling, marvelous, miraculous, surprising, mind-blowing, and staggering. The verb form, amaze, means "to overwhelm with surprise or sudden wonder; astonish greatly," and its synonyms include astound, astonish, shock, dumfound, stun, and flabbergast. It does not mean big, or good, or excellent, or kind, or numerous, or beautiful, or ... well, the list goes on.
Take the recent Emmy Awards. There were more "amazing"s on that broadcast than there were LOLs. Every winner, it seemed, had an amazing cast, an amazing crew, an amazing director, amazing producers and writers, an amazing agent, an amazing family, and presumably amazing Teamsters, gaffers, and body doubles. I'm sorry, but calling everyone who contributed to your success amazing suggests that you're astonished to find cooperative, hard-working, talented, and generous people on a Hollywood set. Is that what you want your colleagues to think? And if everyone who works in television is amazing, then amazing isn't very amazing and no one can truly be called amazing.
"Amazing Grace" works because the wretch in that song was presumably blessed by an unexpected and remarkable transcendent experience. "Amazin' Mets" was an appropriate nickname because the original team of lovable losers was shockingly awful, and because the 1969 squad stunned the world by winning the World Series. The poet e.e. cummings could write "i thank You God for most this amazing / day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees ..." because he was describing something extraordinary, not just an nice day.
But when your neighbor offers to water your plants while you're out of town, calling her amazing implies that you're astounded by her kindness - in which case, you probably don't want her to know that you're amazed. Calling her considerate, thoughtful, or kind would do very nicely. Saying you saw an amazing movie doesn't tell me anything. If you were really, truly amazed by it, tell me why. If it was merely funny, moving, exciting, or thought-provoking, use a more informative description.
Is it too persnickety to ask that we curb our enthusiasm for "amazing"? Can we all please use it only when we are astonished, stunned, and blown away by something even a little miraculous? That would be awesome.