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shameless pleading





Awe / Awful

History makes no sense.

Dear Word Detective: I am a subscriber to the site “Futility Closet” ( I begin each morning with the trivia cocktail, and this morning, besides learning a little about the philological pursuits of Herbert Hoover and his Chinese-speaking wife, I was given this item below the “Misc” heading: “Awe and wonder are synonyms, but awful and wonderful are antonyms.” Now I do understand a little about “awe” and its connection to “fear” as used in Hebrew texts, but I hoped you might take the time to expound on this little problem in your inimitable way. — John Long, Saint Louis.

Thanks for reminding me about Futility Closet (“A collection of entertaining curiosities in history, literature, language, art, philosophy, and mathematics, designed to help you waste time as enjoyably as possible”). It’s a great site. I used to go there every day, but somehow lost the habit. I will endeavor to catch up forthwith.

“Awe and wonder are synonyms, but awful and wonderful are antonyms” is a pretty good illustration of what sometimes seems like the willful perversity of the English language. Of course, as soon as you object to this sort of nonsense, English smoothly comes up with all sorts of good reasons for the aberration, but still, there’s something shifty about this tongue. Not a language I’d turn my back on.

The word “awe” first appeared in English in the 13th century, based on Scandinavian roots carrying the sense of “fear and terror.” The original meaning of “awe” in English was also “fear, terror, or dread,” but use of the word in reference to religious belief eventually led to a modified sense of “awe” in which “fear” was mixed with veneration, and the result was “awe” meaning “reverential fear and wonder in the presence of supreme authority.” This religious “awe” was, by the 18th century, expanded to include a deep emotional response to extraordinary natural phenomena such as great storms, majestic waterfalls, and electronic gizmos prefixed with the letter “i.”

“Awful” appeared around the same time as “awe,” and originally meant “inspiring great awe,” i.e., causing profound dread or great fear. As “awe” evolved, so did “awful,” gradually coming to mean “deserving great respect” and “inspiring, majestic.”

In the early 19th century, however, “awful” took a sharp detour, and began to be used to mean not “inspiring great dread and humility,” but simply “very bad, scary or loathsome.” This new use, a dilution and weakening from the previous sense, actually drew notice from observers at the time: “In New England many people would call a disagreeable medicine, awful; an ugly woman, an awful looking woman…. This word, however, is never used except in conversation, and is far from being so common in the sea-ports now, as it was some years ago.” (1816).

Both “awful” and “awfully” also came into use around this time, in yet a further weakening, as simple intensifiers that could amplify both positives (“A prairie town called Follansbee that looks awful good to me.” 1923) and negatives (“An awful bad sermon from Hudleston.” 1832).

Interestingly, “awesome,” which appeared in the 16th century meaning “full of awe” or “inspiring awe” (i.e., roughly synonymous with the original “awful”), never took that negative turn, although it lately has been diluted into a tepid synonym of “groovy.”

“Wonder” first appeared in Old English (as “wundor”), derived from Germanic roots, with the meaning of “something that causes astonishment.” In Middle English “wonder” came to also mean the feeling inspired by such “wonders.” The verb “to wonder” at first meant simply “to be affected with wonder; to be astonished” or “to express wonder at something impressive or astonishing.” By the 13th century, “to wonder” had expanded to include “to ask oneself in wonderment,” to express curiosity or doubt, whether mentally or aloud (“I still remained before the fire, wondering and wondering about Bleak House.” Dickens, 1853). But “wonderful,” which appeared in the 12th century, didn’t develop this questioning sense, and has meant basically “inspiring wonder” (or simply “really good”) since that time.

So in the “wonder/wonderful/awe/awful” mix, the expected symmetry is ruined by that strange turn “awful” took back in the 19th century. But such cases of a profound change in meaning are far from rare. A story (probably at least partly apocryphal) is told about Sir Christopher Wren, the brilliant architect who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Queen Anne, the reigning monarch at the time, is said to have proclaimed the design “awful, artificial and amusing.” Rather than being offended, Wren was (goes the story) thrilled with the royal review, because at that time “awful,” of course, meant “awe-inspiring,” “artificial” meant “clever” or “artistic,” and “amusing” meant “fascinating” or “astonishing.”

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