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.