If you've been keeping your head down, just doing your job and paying the bills, it may have escaped your notice that we live in exciting times. Yes, really! We're excited about things! We're excited by things! We're excited to do things! And, increasingly, we're excited for things, events, and experiences.
That last construction — we'll call it the anticipatory excited for — is relatively new, and worth spending some time with. But first, let's take a quick survey of the expanding universe of excitement.
CarBuzz wants us to get excited for the big auto show:
A TV news show in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, reported that residents were excited for the very possibility of winning the Powerball lottery:
Dove, a division of Unilever, is "excited for you to take" something called the One Shower Challenge.
Verizon's new mobile video service, GO90, either causes excitement or captures it:
The small type invites us to "share all the awesome," an example of the advertising anthimeria I wrote about last year.
And in his official announcement of Google's new umbrella company, Alphabet, CEO Larry Page used excited five times (modified once by super and once by really) and exciting once.
There's more — much, much more — but I'll let you cool down while I fill in some history.
Excite first appeared in English around 1400, imported either from Old French or Latin and meaning "to set in motion, to stir up" or "to rouse up, to awaken." It acquired specific meanings in the sciences: electric currents, light spectra, and elements are all capable of being excited — that is, set in motion or sensitized. (When exciting first came into use in the 19th century, it carried only the scientific and medical meaning of "immediately causing.") It took until the 1820s for excite to be used in connection with emotions ("to stir up tumultuous passions"); the sexual meaning — as in the Pointer Sisters' 1983 hit song " I'm So Excited" — was added later in the century.
As long as the adjective or past-tense verb excited applied only to physical phenomena, its grammatical usage was pretty straightforward: you could say excited molecules or the molecules were excited — no prepositions required. Things got complicated, as they always do, when feelings entered the picture. As Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman of the Grammarphobia blog explained a few years ago, the traditional prepositional rules for excited go something like this:
- "To be 'excited about' something means to look forward to it, whether eagerly or anxiously."
- "'Excited' also commonly appears with 'by,' as in 'The dog snapped because it was excited by the cat'."
- "And 'excited' can be accompanied by 'at,' as in 'Mom and Dad were excited at the prospect of having grandchildren'."
As for excited for, "in idiomatic English, [it] means excited on someone's behalf, as in 'You're engaged? We're so excited for you!'"
In other words, in traditional usage you could only be excited for someone else — not for Christmas, the Super Bowl, or lunch.
Nevertheless, O'Conner and Kellerman acknowledged a jump in anticipatory "excited for," which they'd been seeing mostly in sportswriting. (Sample headline: "Kobe excited for 'new-look' Lakers.") It's not the traditional usage, they allowed, but "as is often the case with prepositions, there's no particular set of grammatical rules about what goes or doesn't go with 'excited'."
A couple of years later, Ben Yagoda, a professor of English and journalism at the University of Delaware, took up the issue of prepositional drift in Lingua Franca, the Chronicle of Higher Education's language blogH. In addition to excited for, he noted the increasing popularity of enamored with (instead of the conventional enamored of), obsessed with (instead of obsessed by) and bored of (instead of bored by or bored with). In each case, he wrote, the new prepositional attachment is modeled on an older, similar idiom: ready for, in love with, tired of.
But as a commenter pointed out, something slightly different is going on with excited for. You're excited for "things that haven't happened or arrived yet. You can be excited about the World Cup during the World Cup, but maybe you'd only be excited for it before it starts." For signals anticipation — perhaps because it hints at before — in a way about or by can't.
Excited for actually peaked more than a century ago, but its usage then was distinctly different from today's. Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, excited for was exclusively a passive construction. Here are some examples from a Google Ngrams search of excited for the (eliminating constructions in which for is synonymous with because):
- his anxiety was excited for the men who had claims (1800)
- my compassion was excited for the poor hopeless youngster (1807)
- It was evident they mistook the person against whom their anger was excited for the Frenchwoman (1852)
- No one can read this narrative without feeling his sympathy strongly excited for the brave John Deane (1876)
- the same fierce passions had been excited for the preservation of the old order of things (1881)
You still see the occasional "our sympathies are excited for," but mostly in scholarly writing.
It's not only the switch from passive to active voice that makes the new excited for noteworthy: Emotional excitement itself has only recently been deemed laudable. As recently as 1993, in a children's advice book about emotions called I'm Excited, it was something to be tamed ("This story describes twins who are so excited by [not for] their upcoming birthday party that they even ruin the cake!").
Then, beginning around 2000, there was a surge in anticipatory and positive excited for. The earliest such example I found in Google Ngrams is from 1999, in How to Talk to Your Child About Sex: "They were getting really excited for the big talk we were going to have." From then on, there was no stopping the new construction: "excited for the house to be done" ( 2002 ), "excited for the games" (2004), "excited for the afternoon" ( 2005 ), "excited for the final races of the season" (2007 ), "excited for the zombie apocalypse" (2012), "excited for this panel on methods and innovations in sociolinguistics" (2016).
As I noted earlier, the excite spike been mirrored in corporate lingo. Excite.com, which launched in 1994, was one of the earliest online portals. (It's still around, as MyExcite.com.) The 1990s also saw the introduction of X-Site game arcades, Excite mini-bikes, Xcite computer hardware and software, and Xcite! disposable wipes, among many other once-exciting, now-defunct products. And new "Excite" trademarks continue to be filed: Excite exercise machines (2003), Excite cheerleading workshops (2005), Excite LED displays (2007), Excite-A-Bowl bowling alleys (2012), Excite tablet computers (2012), Excite vegetable peelers (2015). As another commenter on Yagoda's blog post wrote: "One suspects corporate America is barely able to remain seated."
The incessant thrum of excitement has a paradoxical effect of diluting the emotion. (It's worth noting a punctuational parallel with a similar effect: the increased usage of exclamation-points , or "bangorrhea.") When we say we're "excited" about something as mundane aslunch, orTuesday, or even "to hear from you," we're not necessarily signaling delirious pleasure. Rather, excited — to, by, about, or for — has simply become the default descriptor for a range of positive anticipatory moods, including pleased, enthusiastic, and hopeful. It fits comfortably into our contemporary style of discourse, where hyperbole is the norm — where companies profess their "passion" and even trivial accomplishments are "awesome."
In this context, excited isn't extreme; it's reasonable, almost neutral. You might even say it's not worth getting excited about.
Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books.Click here to read other articles by Nancy Friedman