Sublime, rise and fall of an indispensable ideaBy
Google's Ngram is out. Everyone is plugging in words.
Nick Wingfield asked Ngram to track the word "awesome." This is the little word that could, emerging sometime in the 19th century and climbing steadily for 100 years. It spikes after World War II, and peaks around 1980, dipping briefly and oddly, Nick notes, at just around the time it was embraced by Jeff Spicoli (the Sean Penn invention in Fast Times in Ridgemont High).
This little word changed horses in the middle of the stream. In the 19th century, "awesome" meant "capable of inducing awe." At some point it came to mean "good, very good" as in "Dude, that's so totally awesome."
Why the shift? In a world that was flatter and more democratic, awe disappeared as a social reflex. In a world of rising technology and science, awe disappeared as a response to nature. In a world that was increasingly explicable and routinized, awe disappeared as a response the inscrutability of the world. I bet even our gods were less "awesome."
What's a word to do? Find a new home. Dream up a new meaning. Make yourself useful some other way. Hence the company of surfers. It's not the company a word usually seeks out. The parties, the weed, the complete inability to graduate from high school. But, hey, words go where the action is.
Inspired by Wingfield's study, I plugged in a world of my own. I tried "sublime." You will see the results to the right. Not pretty.
Sublime hit a high point and has been sliding ever sense. And I guess the high point was occasioned by Edmund Burke who loved the word deeply.
The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature ... is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it.
I think sublime fell for the same reason that awesome rose. It fell into bad company. It was a great and dignified term for Burke, but eventually it became a party favor, something to be used by members of the English middle class to describe cocktail dresses and garden parties. Run with a crowd like this and only bad things can happen.
It's a pity because this really is a good word. It's about how some things in the world can so astonish us that it explodes (or at least beggars) our categories of perception/conception. By this, the Burkean definition, "sublime" is a tremendous word. As the world gets more and more turbulent and confusing, it is becoming more and more sublime. "Sublime" actually helps us come to grips with our attempt to come to grips with the structural properties of contemporary culture. And that, in my book, makes it totally awesome.
Burke, Edmund. 1958. A philosophical inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. 57.
Wingfield, Nick. 2010. Ngram for "awesome." Facebook status update. December 17.