Stop being sick and be awesome instead. An awful lot about the career of awesome over time

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2016
16 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents









1 Introduction

The first sentence of the title of this term paper - an abbreviated excerpt from a hallmark expression by the actor Neil Patrick Harris from the US American TV-series How I met your mother - hints towards the different perceptions of the adjective “awesome” that can be found in the English language. However, the same holds true for the adjective “awful” which results in the fact that there still are contrasting concepts of both adjectives within the English speaking community and therefore also the possible audience of this term paper. The goal of this term paper is to show that there is a connection between the change in meaning of the two adjectives whose conceptualization both changed somewhere in the mid-20th century.

For an explanation of the change, Rudi Keller’s theory of an Invisible Hand in linguistics is used. Keller’s theory was chosen for this analysis as it has received significant attention since its publication in 1990 and proven useful in explaining various phenomena of language change. In addition to that, the change in meaning for both “awful” and “awesome” happened in a rather short period of time. It therefore qualifies for an explanation that put language change on the basis of a set of similar individual circumstances, just as Keller does with his idea of phenomena of a third kind.

Firstly, the paper gives an introduction into Keller’s ideas, introduces the theoretical framework and also presents critical receptions of the Invisible Hand Theory. Secondly, the development of “awesome” and “awful” over time is presented and an explanation for a possible connection is given. This is done with the help of data Google n-gram and the Corpus of Contemporary American English as well as information from both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. In the last part, this paper applies the theory of an Invisible Hand on the language change for “awesome” and “awful” by using three categories that were developed by Christa Dürscheid. The last part also answers questions about individual motives for actions that facilitate language change, explains a possible selection process as well as gives a definition for the newly emerged structure of this particular part of the English language.

2 Invisible Hand Theory in linguistics

Phenomena of a third kind

The theory of an Invisible hand in linguistics was developed by Rudi Keller and finds its first definition in 1990 in his book Sprachwandel. Von der unsichtbaren Hand in der Sprache. Keller bases his theory on the assumption that, apart from natural and cultural phenomena, there are also phenomena which cannot be explained by the common antagonists like nature vs. art, instincts vs. reason or sentiment vs. logic. According to Keller, there is also a third kind of phenomena, a phenomenon of a third kind, as he calls it: results of human action but without human intention (cf. Keller 64).

Keller also gives some generic examples from everyday life that he connects to phenomena of a third kind. His main examples are a traffic jam or a dirt track on a lawn. According to Cf. Keller both the traffic jam, which might appear without any logical reason, accident or any other obvious cause, as well as the dirt track are results that appear, because at a certain point in time, a large number of individuals have the same intention (cf. Keller 89). These intentions, for example, getting as fast as possible from a point a to a point b, result in something, that was not intended ore sometimes even despised. However, even if neither a traffic jam nor a dirt track on a lawn is intended, they will appear anyway.

To explain those kinds of phenomena, Keller adapts the theory of an Invisible Hand that originates in the ideas of the Anglo-Dutch philosopher Bertrand de Mandeville. In 1805, Mandeville issued the Fable of the hive, whose ideas that progress and economic success are not possible without egoism while at the same time result in a demoralization of society, later were the basis for Adam Smith’s idea of an Invisible hand, formulated in his work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776.

Application on linguistics

Keller aim, when applying the theory of an Invisible hand on linguistics is to find a way of explaining language change. To Keller, language can be seen as a kind of spontaneous order, or as Daniela Drumm interprets Keller’s idea of language:

“ The present state of language is an unintentional and unconscious side effect of the speech acts of individual speakers trying to communicate successfully. As a consequence, language change is a prototypical example of socio-cultural evolution “ (1).

For Cf. Keller language change is evolutionary. This means that language change in Keller’s interpretation is

- not teleological (directed to a certain goal, that means that the speaker intentionally changes his language to reach a certain goal by this change)
- cumulative (crucial for the explanation of phenomena of a third kind)
- an interplay between variation and selection, or in the case of language change, actuation and propagation (cf. Croft 398)

One of the main ideas of Keller’s adaption of the Invisible Hand Theory into linguistics is an adaption of the Gricean maxim for intention-based meaning in communication. Simply speaking, the Gricean maxim postulates that every meaning of an utterance is directed to the speaker. Keller puts his idea as a consecution to the Gricean maxim and postulates that the function of language is not communication and also an extra-linguistic goal that is followed by the speaker. In addition to that, he formulates a, as he puts it, neo-gricean hypermaxim, based on Grice’s Cooperative principle: "talk in such a way that you are most likely to reach the goals that you set for yourself in the communicative the lowest possible costs" (cf. Keller 106).

In Keller’s concept, static maxims do not propagate change but rather foster homogeneity and stasis (cf. Croft 395). Therefore, his static maxims aim at the homogeneity of the group of speakers:

S1: Talk in a way in which you believe the other would talk if he or she were in your place: S2: Talk like the others talk In addition to that Keller bases his two static maxims on the six functions of language that where defined by Roman Jakobson. Keller borrowed the first static maxim from Humboldt’s maxim of communication (cf. Keller and Kirschbaum, 143) and also uses it to incorporate the referential function of language (cf. Keller 100).

In contrast to the static maxims, Keller also defines six dynamic maxims.

D1: Talk in such a way that you are noticed
D2: Talk in such a way that you are not recognizable as a member of the group D3: Talk in an amusing, funny etc. way
D4: Talk in an especially polite, flattering, charming etc. way
D5: Talk in such a way that you do not expend superfluous energy
D6: Talk so as not to be misunderstood

All dynamic maxims are aiming at facilitating change and thus incorporated into his hypermaxim (cf. Keller 137).

Keller also applies his ideas on linguistics and states two main examples. The first example deals with the change in meaning of “englisch” and “engelhaft” in the German language. Keller uses the Invisible Hand to explain the change in meaning by referring to the homonymy between “englisch“ and “engelhaft“ that appeared after the industrial revolution, when the economic relations between England and Germany began to develop. Speakers of the German language tended, in order not to be misunderstood, to avoid this homonymy and therefore use another term than “englisch“ for expressing “engelhaft“, resulting in a simple equation: the less “englisch“ is used meaning “angelic“, the less likely it becomes that new speakers will learn or conceptualize it with this meaning rather than “englisch“ (cf. Croft 397).

The second and also more prominent example of Keller’s Invisible Hand Theory, deals with the pejoration of the term “Frau“ in the German language. Keller reasons that because of the fact that men try to address women as nice as possible, they tend to use the most noble and formal address for a women, which in this case is the German “Dame”. The maxim for gallantry, which especially corresponds to the dynamic maxim D4, leads to the fact that the term “Dame” is even used in situations that usually do not require such a polite address. This leads to the result, that the normal address “Frau“ is only used in rather negative contexts and thus a pejoration of the term (cf. Keller 109).

Critique on Keller’s approach

While Keller undoubtedly successfully managed to apply an approach that had not yet been used before on linguistics, there are some linguistists that put the relevance of his findings into question. William Cf. Croft for example, postulated in 1997, that Keller’s findings are without significant empirical relevance (cf. Croft 397). He mainly tackles Keller’s second example, the pejoration of the term “Frau“ in the German language and puts his critique in three major points. Firstly, according to Cf. Croft the pejoration of the term “Frau“ or an equivalent in the corresponding language, does also appear in societies, where there is no explicit rule for gallantry towards women (cf. Croft 397). Secondly, Crofts states that Keller’s explanation does not fit on the pejoration of terms like “Nigger“ or “Afro-American“, as there is no rule in any society, where these words have a negative connotation, to be ecplizitly galant towards black people. According to Croft, the original explanation of a sequential pejoration of the terms “Frau“, where speakers used the term in progressively more pejorating contexts, resulting to less attractive connotations and the fact that it eventually did not serve as a homonymy for „Dame“ anymore, would be more fitting here (cf. Croft 396). Thirdly, Crofts goes as far as to provide an own invisible hand explanation for the pejoration of the term “Frau“: According to Croft, the term “Frau” has, due to widespread sexism, always been with a negative connotation. This leads to the fact, that as soon as women are addressed in a neutral way, people tend to use another term, for example “Dame“. This again leads to an even more negative connotation, when “Frau“ is used (cf. Croft 397). In addition to that, Croft also addresses Keller’s explanation of “englisch“ vs. “engelhaft“. Although he gives Keller credit for giving a reasonable explanation for a change in language that goes beyond a mere avoidance of homonymy, Croft states, that Keller’s approach in fact does not explain why people tend to avoid a homonymystic use of “englisch“ and “engelhaft“ but rather explains, why the German language after all has lost “englisch“ as a synonym for “engelhaft“ (cf. Croft 397).

This is also the main point of Crofts criticism, which is complemented by other critics as well. While Croft highlights that Keller does not clearly distinguish between actuation and the timespan between actuation and propagation sometimes is very long, something, that should not happen according to Keller’s theory, where change, triggered by a phenomenon of third kind, happens, as soon as the ecological conditions are met (cf. Croft 399) other critics address different limitations. Francina Ladstätter for example, who has put together a comprehensive overview about the reception by other linguistic scholars, highlights that Keller’s examples are restricted to semantic, or to be more precise, lexical change in language (81). Or as Arleta Adamska-Salaciak puts it: "(...) if invisible-hand explanation is to be taken as the explanation, not just of language change in general, but also of particular instances thereof, one has the right to expect the evidence for the claim to come from as many different categories of change as possible" (175).

However, despite all this criticism, there have been recent studies that try to tackle the limitations of the Invisible Hand Theory. Tecumseh Fitch for example transferred Keller’s findings into the English language. He showed that similar to the pejoration of “Frau” in German, the terms “hussy” and “wench” were also pejorated in the English language. Fitch therefore proofs that language change at the ‘macroscopic’ level is often influenced in counter- intuitive ways by ‘microscopic’ changes in how individuals use language (cf. Fitch 666).

3 The development of “awesome” over time

While most English speakers today will most probably connect the adjective “awesome” with the meaning “great” or even “marvelous” and therefore understand “awesome” according to the intended meaning in the headline, there might be some native English speakers,


Excerpt out of 16 pages


Stop being sick and be awesome instead. An awful lot about the career of awesome over time
University of Göttingen
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Quote paper
Holger Weinreich (Author), 2016, Stop being sick and be awesome instead. An awful lot about the career of awesome over time, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Stop being sick and be awesome instead. An awful lot about the career of awesome over time

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free