We have an awesome problem. I don’t mean that we have a problem and it’s an awesome problem to have. I mean that we have a problem with the word awesome. (I’m trying to be cheeky here. Work with me, people.)
Awesome is a word we use a lot at Mozilla. We have the Awesome Bar right in the browser. We’ve got the Army of Awesome. We talk about awesome features and awesomeness. We even push the limits of the word and create new forms like “awesomized.”
Now I’ll go on the record and say I like it. It’s fun and shows personality. But there are those who would argue that the word is so overused that it starts to become meaningless. And it’s not just that we use it a lot. It’s used in everyday conversation, in popular blogs and TV commercial campaigns.
A further complication arises with localization (a subject for a post all its own). This requires a little etymology, so pardon me while I geek out for a paragraph.
Awe actually meant “terror” or “dread” until the late 1700s, from which point on it retained only the slightly softer meaning of “reverential fear or wonder” (all definitions from the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). Awesome came along in the late 16th century meaning “filled with awe” and then “inspiring awe” about a century later, both of which are still in use today. The positive colloquialism meaning “outstanding, remarkable” didn’t come along until the mid 20th century (interestingly enough, that came after the adverb form, awesomely, began to mean “outstanding, very” in the late 19th century). All that brings us to today and the late 1900s slang meaning of “excellent” or “marvelous.”
Now imagine that you’re a non-native-English speaker and you see the word “awesome” in some Firefox copy. You go to look it up and you’re presented with a whole bunch of options that don’t seem to make a lot of sense. I’ve even been told (and please correct me if I’m wrong) that this recent, North American usage of awesome isn’t as common in the UK.
These problems aren’t without their solutions, but those solutions aren’t necessarily “stop using awesome.” One strategy is to work more closely with our localizers to teach and empower them to make changes to the copy that don’t affect the meaning, but make it sound better in their language. As part of that, I’m going to be making myself available to answer questions that come up in the l10n process (more details to come on that).
As it stands, awesome is a big part of how we communicate. Ditching it now would probably be as problematic as continuing to use it, just in different ways. I, for one, think we should stick with it, own it, but we need to also keep the above considerations in mind to make sure we’re not alienating anyone anywhere along the way. So I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. What do you think of our use of awesome? Has it caused any problems that you know of? What are some things we can do moving forward?
Oh, and by the way, I hope you all enjoyed my lack of clothing and courage last time. Thanks for being kind and supportive in your comments.