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Trying to drive a stake through a conversational staple

British-born poet and journalist John Tottenham says that saying 'awesome' in his presence is like 'waving a crucifix in a vampire's face.'

January 06, 2012|Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times
  • John Tottenham holds an anti-awesome bumper sticker at Stories bookstore in Echo Park.
John Tottenham holds an anti-awesome bumper sticker at Stories bookstore… (Christina House, For the…)

"Awesome," according to one dictionary of slang, is "something Americans use to describe everything."

The linguistic overkill horrifies John Tottenham. So the British-born L.A. poet, painter and journalist has launched what he calls the Campaign to Stamp Out Awesome, or CPSOA.

"Saying the word in my presence is like waving a crucifix in a vampire's face," Tottenham says. "It's boiled down to one catchall superlative that's completely meaningless."

I met with Tottenham last week at CSPOA headquarters inside Stories, the Echo Park bookstore he is trying to turn into the world's first awesome-free zone. "Ground zero for a quiet revolution," Tottenham calls the cafe and shop, where he has a day job. The group's manifesto is posted at the counter, and no-awesome stickers with the usual diagonal slash are on sale, with T-shirts to follow, Tottenham said.

"It's a matter of semantic satiation," Tottenham told me. "Sometimes I'm sitting in a crowd and I hold my breath until someone says it. Seldom do I die of asphyxiation as a result."

There's no arguing with Tottenham's premise that "awesome" is seen and heard everywhere, from the sign on the tchotchke aisle at the 99-cent store to the lips of supermarket cashiers. UC Santa Barbara linguist Mary Bucholtz says that from its dusky origins, perhaps in 1970s surfer slang, it's spread to Australia and English-speaking India.

But Tottenham failed to convince me it's a bad thing. What's wrong with bathing everything in the sunny light of superlativity? I asked him.

I admire the "awesome" generation's ability to talk at all with only a few words at its disposal.

The economy of expression is poetic, I argued. The conversations go like this:

Caller 1: Dude?

Caller 2: Dude.

Caller 1: Whadup?

Caller 2: Chillin.

Caller 1: Awesome. Want to kick it?

Caller 2: I'm down.

Caller 1: Now?

Caller 2: Awesome. I'm out.

Caller 1: Peace.

Somewhere, DEA agents are holed up in a hotel room listening to this for hours on end and going out of their minds.

But there's a subtle genius in language that has been wiped clean of almost all content. Nobody has to risk expressing a real thought or sentiment. Bland affirmation is an impenetrable defense. No one can object. As Syme, the language specialist in charge of shrinking the dictionary in George Orwell's dystopian novel "1984" put it, "It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words."

Tottenham was having none of it.

"The bogus sense of positivity has a demoralizing effect," he said. "People resent it if you don't say you're doing great."

Bucholtz, the linguist, pointed out that every generation thinks the next one is wrecking the English language. Tottenham, an old punk rocker who fled dreary old England for the Wild West, gave that point some consideration. But in the end, he rejected it.

"I hated it when I was young, " Tottenham said. "It is the most irritating word."

Tottenham said his linguistic cleansing movement has mostly been embraced, at least within "the two-block radius of Echo Park where I am a minor celebrity." One Stories customer bristled when he tried to get her to honor the awesome ban, though.

"But I'm from California," she said. "I can't help it."

As we chatted, a man in a cowboy shirt came up to congratulate Tottenham on his recent performance of an anti-awesome screed at a local gallery.

"That was awesome," the man said, grinning widely.

Tottenham smiled back sourly.

"I know I'm setting myself up as a target to be churlishly bombarded by people who use the word to irritate me," Tottenham said. "People who know about the campaign and want to further express their lack of verbal ingenuity....They do it because they think it's witty, which it isn't."

"But I'm willing to take it on the nose in an honorable cause," he said.

Tottenham already is looking toward other cliches to conquer.

"Other words will be addressed once we get rid of awesome," Tottenham promises. "'It's all good.' That's definitely crying out to be done."

But as with all social engineering movements, Tottenham has hit unexpected obstacles. As we chatted, we walked to a nearby cafe that had posted his no-awesome sticker in the window. The waitress stopped by to say the restaurant had been forced to take the sign down.

"The staff vetoed it," she said. "They're afraid people are going to think the restaurant is not awesome."

gale.holland@latimes.com

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