Posted by: Jack Henry | September 1, 2016

Editor’s Corner: Awesome and Awful

Imagine that you’re on a first date. You went to a movie, and now you’re talking over dinner. Your date says, "That movie was awesome. It’ll win Best Picture for sure." You thought the movie was awful: the worst you’ve seen in years.

As your eyes drift to the nearest exit, a thought crosses your mind: "How did words as etymologically similar as awesome and awful come to be near-opposites?"

The word awe dates from before the 12th century, according to Merriam-Webster. Its original meaning (now obsolete) was "intense fear, dread, or terror."

When awful appeared in the 13th century (from awe and -ful), it meant "inspiring awe," or, more specifically, "causing dread or terror."

Between the 13th century and the turn of the 17th century, awe picked up a few more meanings (again from Merriam-Webster):

· fear mixed with dread, veneration, reverence, or wonder

· veneration and latent fear inspired by something sacred, mysterious, or morally impressive

· reverent wonder with a touch of fear inspired by the grand or sublime especially in nature or art

"Intense fear" became "fear," which became "latent fear," which became "a touch of fear." And "reverence" and "wonder" took over.

When awesome appeared in 1598 (from awe and -some), it meant "expressive of awe" or "deeply reverent"—no sign of fear.

The meanings of awful and awesome softened somewhat over the last 400 years, but they kept their negative and positive connotations (respectively).

So, when you and your date discuss the latest blockbuster’s artistic merits (or lack thereof), you’re using definitions similar to the following:

· awful: extremely unpleasant, disagreeable, or objectionable

· awesome: extremely or amazingly good

Ben Ritter | Technical Editor | Symitar®
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  1. […] Now, let’s look at awe. Awe is a noun that used to mean dread or terror. Now, Merriam-Webster defines it as “fear mixed with dread, veneration, reverence, or wonder.” I think today it has a more positive feeling associated with it—when someone says something is awesome, they tend to mean it is really fantastic, not really scary. (See more about Awesome and Awful in Ben’s article.) […]

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