Sublime, rise and fall of an indispensable idea

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.  

References

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.

6 thoughts on “Sublime, rise and fall of an indispensable idea”

  1. Grant,

    Love this tool, but I am sure it has some strange quirks- like what people say vs. write and therefore how accurately it can really track culture.

    Take “Whatever” as show here, this is not what I would have expected.

    http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=whatever&year_start=1800&year_end=2008&corpus=5&smoothing=3

    Maybe this is something that requires deep analysis and perspective- drawing conclusions without having a foundation, could be dangerous.

  2. To follow on from Ed’s point – I’d guess that awesome is still more present in speech than written text. Although it depends on the texts included. Another question is what was the gap between speech and text in 1800? Whose speech and which texts…

  3. @Ed: what were you expecting?

    Ngrams are just strings of words, and they have no linguistic/cultural context. At present, Google’s term matching systems are not very sophisticated, so if you were trying to graph the usage of “whatever” as an expression of agnosticism, as in ‘whatever, dude!’ – you’re out of luck.

  4. The link between vocabulary and education is obvious. But I don’t agree with the the way you’ve presented the adaptation of the word “awesome” –incinuating a decline in the value of the word due to over-use and association with an “uneducated” group of people.

    When I think of surfers, I think of a group of people who are deeply (sometimes spiritually) connected to the natural world and in particular, the ocean. I suggest that as a direct correlation to the advance of technology, the natural world (as you say) was perceived by the majority of the population with less awe –we’d seen it all! But the simple pleasure of surfing — actually experiencing it — is “awe-inspiring”. And I suppose when you look at the lifestyle of surfers and their largely positive outlook on the world, the appropriation of the word seems (at least a little) less thick-skulled and a little more inspired and idealist.

  5. The link between vocabulary and education is obvious. But I don’t agree with the the way you’ve presented the adaptation of the word “awesome” –incinuating a decline in the value of the word due to over-use and association with an “uneducated” group of people.

    When I think of surfers, I think of a group of people who are deeply (sometimes spiritually) connected to the natural world and in particular, the ocean. I suggest that as a direct correlation to the advance of technology, the natural world (as you say) was perceived by the majority of the population with less awe –we’d seen it all! But the simple pleasure of surfing — actually experiencing it — is “awe-inspiring”. And I suppose when you look at the lifestyle of surfers and their largely positive outlook on the world, the appropriation of the word seems (at least a little) less thick-skulled and a little more inspired and idealist.

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