Thursday, May 24, 2018


            I’m at a loss for words. What do you exclaim when you experience surprised delight? A couple of four-letter words have served me well for surprising misfortune, but the positive side has proved elusive. 
            I confess that I watch HGTV and the occasional series on Netflix where homes are shown to customers or remodeled for their owners. Kim watches them for decorating ideas, or for how to design our cottage, while I’m more interested in watching the people and listening to what they say, hoping to learn something.

            On Fixer-Upper, the prevailing exclamation when the couple sees the amazing remodeling transformation, is “Oh, my God!” Occasionally – Waco, Texas, being where it is – we get an “Oh, my goodness!” But “Oh, my God!” appears to be the default exclamation. And I’ve heard it frequently in other contexts as an expression of surprised delight – American Idol(now that grumpy Simon is not a judge), Ellen(when she gives a good person a gift), and even in real untelevised life (when I gave my granddaughter a computer). I’m not sure how God figures into this. Is the happy exclaimer suggesting that God had something to do with the surprise? Is it an expression of thanks to God for creating a universe where such surprises can happen? Is the word “my” significant in the expression – if you had a God like mine, you would get a similar kitchen remodel? How does God feel about the expression as He looks up from laying some bathroom tile? This is all mildly troubling to me, but as a non-religious person, I can let it go. Being abbreviable as OMG makes the religious dimension an even more difficult stretch.

            We recently saw a Canadian series where in each episode, a couple would look at three homes, each featuring the “view” (golf course, frozen lake, vineyards, California beach, lighthouse – you get the idea) that the couple was seeking. Half of the properties were in Canada, half in southern California. But no matter where the episode was filmed, the response was the same: “Wow!” After a while Kim and I got the giggles each time someone said it, and we ventured guesses how many times “Wow!” was exclaimed in each 28-minute show: I guessed 50, Kim 80, but we could not stand to re-watch and check.

            The word “Wow!” has an interesting origin. When you witness something amazing, as a reflex you have a sudden intake of breath in anticipation of engaging in the spectacle you witness. This intake makes a sound like “Wow!” When writing was invented, the sound was given a spelling. (Come to think of it, this might actually be true. Google was no help, being preoccupied with World of Warcraft (a role-playing game).) (Nice punctuation move!)

            When I was in college in the early ‘60s, nobody said “Wow!” because, at our male bastion, nobody wanted to be thought a vulnerable fool who actually experienced emotions and therefore could be ridiculed. So instead we said, “All right!” with the protection of ironic understatement. The idea was not that All is Right in God’s World (see above), but rather that the event was just all right, a step above “Not bad.” This was when buttoned-down shirts were invented.

            What else?

            “Brilliant” is not an exclamation of delighted surprise, but an evaluation, as when our waiter, a Lithuanian working on his British accent, pronounced my choice of beer as “Brilliant!”

            “Awesome”? Spoken so often currently as to be almost meaningless. As used today, the word means “not entirely boring.” As in, “These potato chips are awesome!” On the other hand, if one is highly sensitive, one might respond to a potato chip with awe . . ..

            “Shut the front door!” has considerable appeal as an expression of delighted surprise, largely because the imperative has nothing to do with that emotional response. Those of us who are in the know understand that the sentence is a euphemism for an expression with the same rhythm, which also has nothing to do with delighted surprise. Perfect! Except Kim says I don’t say it quite right – something off with the accents.

            After way too much thought, I have come up with an explanation that works for me – though I don’t believe I’ve ever said it in the context of surprised delight: Yes! It seems to be just right, but I won’t know for sure until the right event comes my way.

            I recall a philosopher (Schopenhauer?) arguing that the sentence “I love you” is never true at the time you say it, for when you say it you are not actually loving – you are analyzing your feelings. (Makes me wonder, by the way, what this philosopher’s love life was like . . ..) I fear that when I experience my next surprised delight, I’ll be trying to remember how I am supposed to respond. Those experiences are supposed to overwhelm your thinking, but maybe the thinking will overwhelm the experience. I hope Kim sees this as a challenge . . ..



  1. James Fenimore Cooper's Indians expressed surprise by saying, "Hugh!" I have no idea how that would have been pronounced, though. Maybe like the proper name or maybe it's identical with our "Huh!"

  2. WTF seems to be the default nowadays.