A study called the Spoken British National Corpus 2014 reveals how our use of language is evolving. Is British English succumbing to American influence?
Almost nothing is marvellous these days, but everything is awesome. According to a study by Lancaster University and Cambridge University Press, Britain has all but abandoned the former adjective in favour of the latter. Early evidence from their project, the Spoken British National Corpus 2014, shows that "awesome" now turns up in conversation 72 times per million words. "Marvellous", which 20 years ago appeared 155 times per million words, now appears just twice per million. "Fortnight" is also on the endangered list, as is "cheerio". (That's "cheerio" meaning goodbye, young people, as opposed to the singular form of the breakfast cereal, which you would only tend to use if you got one stuck up your nose.)
The study is the linguistic equivalent of that regularly updated shopping basket they use to determine the Retail Price Index: out goes whale meat and suspenders, in comes SIM cards and hummus. They aren't like-for-like substitutions, just signifiers of a fast-changing culture.
The project is now calling on people to send in MP3s of their conversations – they'll even pay a small amount – in order to gain a wider sense of how the language as it is spoken has changed over the years.Looking over the current list, it's obvious why some of these words have fallen from grace. People don't utter the word "Walkman" much any more for the same reason they hardly ever say "locomotive". "Marmalade" is also falling out of fashion, which probably corresponds to a decline in sales. Or perhaps it's just not the conversation starter it used to be.
The rise of "awesome" has inevitably led some to the conclusion that British English is succumbing to American influence, and that "awesome" has chased "marvellous" from its habitat the way grey squirrels do red ones, confining it to odd phrases and old book titles such as George's Marvellous Medicine. But awesome is no worse than marvellous. Both modifiers are cliched exaggerations: the first really means "dread-inspiring", the second implies a miracle has taken place. The fact that you can apply either to a flapjack recipe indicates we've long drained them of impact. Both have been around for a long time, but we use up cliches faster these days. We need new ones all the time.
There is hope for "marvellous" yet. My American mother used it exclusively as a sarcastic term, usually when a second bad thing happened while something else was still in the process of going wrong. "Oh, marvellous," she would say, with ice in her voice. You can't do that with awesome. Not yet.
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