The words to “Amazing Grace” were written by a captain of a slave ship, freshly delivered from the wretchedness of his existence. According to Wintley Phipps, a performer and historian of gospel music, the captain affixed his words to a slave melody he may have heard at sea, sung by men and women in chains, which explains the song’s uncanny power. That mournful tune—the black keys only—hits the Anglo assonance of “amaze” and “grace” (and their contrast with the gristle word “wretch”). Can you have amazement without a wretch, or that perfect melody, by now grooved into our limbic systems, without the celestial “amazing” to give it lift?
Not long ago, Lake Superior State University agitated to banish the word “amazing” from the English language. A Facebook page soon appeared to decry the word’s overuse. “Apparently,” writes Jodi Fodor, MFA, on her snippy YouTube screed against “amazing,” “we’ve forgotten all other adjectives.”
I took those aggro moves personally, as if “Amazing Grace” were actually being redacted. I get that originality buffs are meant to cultivate allergies to clichés, as if to casein or stevia, and then flaunt that sensitivity as if it were a badge of refinement. That kind of posturing usually seems fun or harmless. But this time I couldn’t join. My tolerance for “amazing,” if anything, has gone up in the last two years. I’m devoted to “amazing” and never want to give it up.
Yes, “amazing”—“amaze” (adj.) and “amazeballs” must be tolerated, too—can be a bro or texter’s word, a creep’s word, a square’s word, and an airhead’s word: “amazing,” because it is used by everyone, belongs equally to sinners and saints. I once knew a blustery adman named Champagne who burst into his penthouse one night and declared: “Amazing. Lightning.” This was his pitch for Universal Studios Theme Parks. “A one-word strategy and a one-word positioning statement.” Amazing. Lightning.
The amazing lightning day was 17 years ago, before 9/11 and the analog sunset, and before various market crashes, wars, and ends of worlds. An ad bro could “position” an experience in those boom times by calling it amazing—and furthermore by likening it to lightning. “Amazing” still seemed fresh-enough then and seemed a welcome alternative to the goony 1980s blockbuster “awesome,” though I find now that in 1999 my then-roommate, Mike Albo, published a story called “Amaze” in a zine, Fluff ‘n’ Nutter, in which the aimless characters compulsively register fleeting responses to life with the word “amazing.” So maybe we were already supersaturated by amazement by the time the millennium turned.
As far as I’m concerned, age cannot wither the “amaze,” nor custom stale its infinite variety. Shakespeare knew it: his boy-crazy Hermia in Midsummer Night’s Dream uses it repeatedly—“in almost the teenaged sense,” my brother Andrew points out. Andrew’s voice teacher Arthur Lessac used to practice iambic scansion by keeping Richard II’s “amazed” to two short-long syllables.
We are amazed; and thus long have we stood
To watch the fearful bending of thy knee,
Because we thought ourself thy lawful king:
And if we be, how dare thy joints forget
To pay their awful duty to our presence?
It’s well worth listening to Mark Rylance do this (:51, left), or Derek Jacobi. We are amaz-st. Something of the zst, as in Liszt, at the end. Tight consonantal restaint, stemming the aghastness that Richard is about to unleash; the restraint dzst has him lean on the maze, tidal syllable against the dam. We are amaaaazdzst. And then the breach: “how dare” and a reminder of one’s “awful duty”—awful, of course, in the original sense of awesome, as in suffused with awe, which is to say fear, a pinch of which serves as the sodium bicarbonate in amazement’s mix.
In ways not lost on advertisers or maybe on any of us, amazing—in ’90s preferred participle form—courses with some of the world’s best phonemes: “ah,” “zing” and of course “maze.” It’s a beauty. When I say it—still maybe a half-dozen times a day, putting me by my lights in the high-average usage zone for my age-group (43-53)—I follow Lessac and hit “maze” the hardest of the three. Sometimes, ugh, I even draw out that second syllable in an affected or juvenile way that, I noticed now, John Gielgud does to great effect in his Richard II.
Amazing is tenacious. A sign in a writer’s room I saw once suggested a hundred or more words to use instead of “amazing.” Ever eager, like a Puritan or William Strunk, to rid my style of slothful habits, I dutifully considered each alternative. Splendid, marvelous, wondrous, baffling—each one I tried. “Your daughter aced the SATs? Keen!” “The daisies look ravishing.” I sounded affected or stunted. Not one of the new words does what amazing does: give musical shape to the shared exhalation of English-speaking humans in a form that is carries both shock and (by now) banality, just as every breath on earth does or ought to do. This essay, then, should be counted as a defense of shopwornness—in this one case, anyway.
I say English-speaking, because “amazing” doesn’t speak to everyone or even to one fifth of language-using humans. For this let’s be grateful: That the amazing is trapped in English puts a brake on its dissipation into meaninglessness, and slows the cultural entropy around it. But amazing wasn’t always locked in our gorgeous, arrogant language. It has, maybe, some roots in Norway. Last November, Anatoly Lieberman, the etymology blogger for the Oxford University Press, chronicled the mysterious evolution of “amaze” from bygone Scandinavian tongues to Modern English with erudition and brio. He did not hesitate to admire the word’s checkered past and cited it as one of many words with a history that “lives up to its sense.” Etymology is magic, I think; it is, at the least, marvelous.
What Lieberman concludes is that “amazing,” like the notoriously mysterious “OK,” was probably always street slang without a proper academic pedigree. What’s more, the beguiling word “maze” (“a place of utter confusion”) was built backward from “amaze,” rather than the other way around, as in aslant and askew.
For a source word, he tries “amarod,” hoping it might function as the past participle of “amasian,” a verb in Old English meaning “confuse, surprise.” To make the point, Lieberman cites Verner’s Law (which states that s and rreliably alternate in Germanic). But he also drops some heavy foreshadowing: “This hypothesis looks mildly attractive, but, as we will see, there is a stiff price to pay for it.”
Liberman wants to push back further than mere Old English. A long a in Old English, he says—for the second syllable in amasian—can evidently only have one source: the dipthong ai, correlate to the ei in German and Scandinavian. The “maze” sound in “amazing” could, then, connect to Old High German’smeis, which means “a basket carried on the back.” There’s his first dead end. Amazement has no birds or baskets in it. Hearing the “mas” sound as with short a, leads him to many, many Scandinavian nouns and verbs that begin with mas. The Norwegian ones include a conflicting but evocative list, whose meanings range from striving and idleness to warmth and intoxication. There’s also “to think” and “to crush to dust.” All of it sounds amazing, and not, at once. Second dead end.
Lieberman’s third or fourth dead end while pursuing “amarod” comes when he admits that Verner’s Law could only have joined up amasian and amarod if they were used in Old English before Germanic tribes busted into Britain. He can find no evidence that they were. Thus, switching the s and r would between “amasian” and “amarod, which would allow amazing to have a nice ancestor in a word just like it meaning “confusing,” is reckless—and exacts that stiff intellectual price. At this, Lieberman charmingly throws up his hands.
In 1820, John Keats wrote a letter to Fanny Brawne, in which he seems to be dying of amazement along with tuberculosis and heartache:
The nearer a racer gets to the Goal the more his anxiety becomes so I lingering upon the borders of health feel my impatience increase. Perhaps on your account I have imagined my illness more serious than it is: how horrid was the chance of slipping into the ground instead of into your arms — the difference is amazing.
In Ulysses (1922), Stephen Daedulus and his wasted buddies slur the word in all its perfect overstatement and imprecision.
Trample the trampellers. Thunderation! Keep the durned millingtary step. We fall. Bishops boosebox. Halt! Heave to. Rugger. Scrum in. No touch kicking. Wow, my tootsies! You hurt? Most amazingly sorry!
Then there is W. H. Auden’s “amazing,” in “Musées des Beaux-Arts” (1938), used to describe Icarus’s crash, where the word is maybe too heartbreaking for comment.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
I see no reason to quit “amazing.” I want it to be worn thin, a tattered, soiled, multiply-mended rag of a word; no one knows where we got it but poor and rich alike twist it and nuzzle it and squeeze it till it’s crushed to dust. In the dirgey, auto-tuned song about himself, “Amazing” (2010), Kanye West, with Young Jeezy, dilates on the song’s title. He rhymes “amazing” with “maven,” “reason” and “afraid of.” Maybe those words are all part it too. Finally West insists: “I’m a problem that will never, ever be solved.” I defy analysis. I am an intractable problem. I’m insoluable. That’s what makes me amazing.