I am word conscious. My ear responds with an almost physical vibration to what it apprehends as a usage that disrespects our common language. Up until recently, “awesome” was the word that distressed my ear. It has now been replaced by “perfect,” both words indicating assent or agreement in everyday situations.

Before it was pushed aside by “perfect,” I was not happy with “awesome” in those ordinary circumstances. A view of the Grand Canyon deserves that word. So does the fact of the New York Rangers winning the Stanley Cup in 1994 after half a century of futile pursuit. But agreeing that 11 a.m. on a Friday is a good time for me to bring my car in for routine service falls considerably short of being “awesome.”

It is also not “perfect.” Eleven o’clock is perhaps more convenient for me than, let’s say, 8 a.m., which would require me to get up earlier than I would prefer, but not that much better than 10 a.m., or noon, or 3 p.m., depending upon whatever else I might have on my calendar for that day.

A simple “good” or “fine” suffices to seal that kind of conversation.

Even a thumbs up text emoji would be preferable.

But perfect? Not so much.

The current usage of “perfect” is an illustration of the felt need by some members of a language group to separate themselves by using an expression, which for a time, is unique to that group. In the 1920s, those who wanted to be hip would say about something that it was “the cat’s pajamas.”

Such an expression is an informal usage, or more plainly, slang, an expression employed by certain individuals as a way of flaunting an indifference to accepted usage.

But in the case of “awesome,” or “perfect,” that usage moves the expression into the general population so that it is no longer the property of a self-defined group as in the cool cats of the ‘20s. As a result, the word loses its mainstream meaning. “Cat’s pajamas” is humorous and nonsensical, and devoid of literal meaning. Cats do not wear pajamas. Today’s “dope” also makes no literal sense. And that’s why people, especially young people, use it, to emphasize they are, well, young. An online slang dictionary lists “awesome” as a synonym for “dope.” An update would add “perfect.”

However, both “awesome” and “perfect” have clear meanings that should be respected.

“Awesome” is the adjective form of the noun “awe,” which means a feeling of being overwhelmed by something that you never before experienced. (See New York Rangers above.)

“Perfect” as an adjective means without flaw. Few experiences are truly awesome, and fewer things, still, are perfect. For something to be without a flaw, it is necessary to establish the variables, that is the flaws, that the perfect object lacks. Sports provide examples. The proscribed flaw for a perfect game in baseball is a baserunner. In a perfect game, the pitcher permits no baserunners, 27 batters up, 27 batters retired.

In a less numerically precise way, “perfect” is applied in a political context when a supporter of a piece of legislation says, “Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Such a statement acknowledges that outside of sports with clearly defined parameters, pretty much everything else in life will be, to some degree, less than perfect, especially in the give and take of legislation.

Robert Browning declared in “Andrea del Sarto:”

“Ah, But a man’s reach should exceed his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for.”

That is an important concept, one that the usual meaning of “perfect” can express, precisely because it suggests the unattainable.

My ear says, “case closed, OK?”

Stephen Lewis, originally from Brooklyn, New York is a retired college English professor and writer whose books include three mysteries set in northern Michigan, and his recently published memoir ”Dementia, A Love Story” sold locally at Horizon Books and online at Amazon. Contact stevelew@charter.net.

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