Ain’t It Awful?

Recently I was at a dinner party where people were using the words awful  and awesome, possibly as antonyms. Awful  was, I thought, used to describe something very bad, awesome something very good.

The words awesome and awful have been doing do-si-do with one another for a while. So are they the same word? And if so, what word is that, exactly?

The Oxford English Dictionary records awful as medieval. Since the ninth century, it’s been the high-toned term of choice meaning “awe-inspiring,” in the sense of “causing dread; terrible, dreadful, appalling.” But awful is also “worthy of, or commanding, profound respect or fear,” and has been in that sense for almost as long.

Awful seems to sustain a body blow at the beginning of the 19th century, when it takes on the meaning “frightful, very ugly, monstrous; and hence as a mere intensive deriving its sense from the context = Exceedingly bad, great, long, etc.” A mere intensive? Say it isn’t so.

Awesome, on the other hand, begins as “Full of awe, profoundly reverential,” then “Inspiring awe; appalling, dreadful, weird.” These senses all emerge in the time of the Jacobethans, when awe clearly meant something.

Two hundred years ago, awesome and awful  seem to have had a lot in common, and what they had in common was a touch of the sublime.

But that was the sublime then, and this is the postsublime now.

The history of English usage  (thank you again, our OED  overlords) leaps forward to 1961, when we can define awesome—“in a weakened sense”—as “overwhelming, staggering, remarkable, prodigious.”

OK 1980, what did you give us? Well, many things, including the sense of awesome—“in trivial use”—to mean “’marvelous,’ ‘great,’ stunning, mind-boggling.”

It would be difficult today to sell a movie title like Leo McCarey’s 1937 comedy  The Awful Truth. The phrase works on the understanding of awful  as a tongue-in-cheek inversion of terrible, shocking.  In the film, you will remember, a sparring couple played by Cary Grant and Irene Dunne discover the truth that they’re matched quite nicely and still very much in love, which might be awesome in the post-1980 sense.

On a more animated note, The Lego Movie’s theme song,Everything Is Awesome,” drives home the point, but with enough irony to stun a charging rhino. 

Blue skies, bouncy springs
We just named 2 awesome things
A Nobel Prize, a piece of string
You know what’s awesome?

On this subject, Urban Dictionary wastes no time in poking a fat finger in the American eye. The top-ranked definition of awesome is “Something Americans use to describe everything.”

My dinner companions used awesome as if it were awful as if it were very. They’re not alone. The older senses of awful and awesome now teeter on the linguistic endangered list, while awesome has engineered its unobjectionable, though substantially meaningless, self into the remotest corners of conversational speech.

The last word on the subject isn’t a word at all, but the pronunciation guide for aw, that now-humbled first syllable in awful and awesome.

/ɔ: /

That could be my emoji of choice on the matter, too.


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