awesome, awful

This first post is dedicated to Whit Richardson, who asks, “Why do we use awesome (just some awe?) when talking about something that blows our socks off, but we use awful (full of awe?) when talking about something with no redeeming qualities?”

It all has to do with the awesomely shape-shifting meaning of the word “awe.”

Experiencing awe wasn’t always awfully appealing. In Old English “awe” meant ‘fear, terror or dread.’ According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), from its use in reference to God the word came to mean ‘dread mingled with veneration, reverential or respectful fear.’   Sounds like the “mighty God and terrible” of the Old Testament.

By the mid 1700s “awe” came to mean ‘the feeling of solemn and reverential wonder, tinged with latent fear, inspired by what is terribly sublime and majestic in nature, e.g. thunder, a storm at sea.’ Ah, yes. Wonderful and terrible at the same time. That’s “wonderful” in the sense of evoking wonder and “terrible,” meaning ‘terrifying,’ as in “His terrible swift sword.” What an awesome maelstrom of emotions.

Through the centuries “awful” and “awesome” both carried the meaning of inspiring awe — in a good way and a terrible (quake, quake) way. In 19th century slang “awful” came to mean ‘frightful, very ugly, monstrous’ and, by extension, it served to intensify the following word: “To what an awful extent the Spanish peasant‥will consume garlic.” The earliest example editors of the OED have found of “awesome” in its present sense of ‘overwhelming, staggering; remarkable, prodigious’ is as recent as 1961. And the earliest use of “awesome” meaning ‘marvelous, great; stunning or mind-boggling’ they cite is the Official Preppy Handbook, 1980.

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One Response to awesome, awful

  1. Pingback: Lexie Kahn and the Terrible Terrorist | Lexie Kahn: Word Snooper

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