Word Bites — Awful vs Awesome

The English language is weird, yet interesting. Words that form from similar roots can take different, or opposite meanings. Sometimes, word pairs that sound like they have opposite meanings have rather similar, or identical meanings. Plus, there are also contronyms, where words can have opposite meanings based on the context in which they are used. Sanction, left, clip and seed are all examples of such words. Here, in a new short post format, we explore a pair of words that have similar origins, yet opposite meanings.

“Awful” and “Awesome” have the “Aw(e)” part in common, yet “Awful” confers a negative connotation, linking it with feelings of letdown or disgust. “Awesome”, however, has a positive meaning, linking it with feelings of excitement or thrill. So, what gives? To understand this, we have to take a look at the different histories of these words, starting off with the word “Awe”.

“Awe” has a variety of meanings, depending on which era we are talking about. The Old English root word, ege, originally conferred the meaning of “terror or dread”, connotations that relate with pain or fear. To be “awe-inspiring”, in 10th century England, would probably be commanding or invoking a degree of fear. Over time, however, its use came to include the more positive aspects of the concept of awe, which slowly entered social acceptance. Today, we connect the feeling of awe with enjoyment, wonder, or curiosity, often citing positive experiences to link with this concept.

So, where do the words “awful” and “awesome” stand? It turns out that “awful” entered use much earlier than “awesome”, being first recorded in texts as far back as the late 10th to early 11th century CE, in Old English or Middle English. With its emergence, came the descriptor that the noun it was attached to was terrifying, or horror.

As society changed, so did language. Yet, the connotations that “awful” conferred remained. Sociolinguistic factors might not have favoured the shift in meaning of “awful”, from such negativity to one that conveyed the new concept of awe. This might have been the origins of “awesome”, even though we still do not know if it was conceptualised and used from necessity. In any case, since its inception in the late 16th century into Early Modern English, the word “awesome” has been used to convey the new social connotations of awe, connotations of positivity and wonder. Originally, both words may have been used interchangeably, but over time, “awful” retained the original negative connotations, unlike its newer counterpart.

While the two words have preserved the original concept of being “awe-inspiring”, we can see how in the course of social changes, the shifts in perceiving the concept of “awe” could have contributed to the rise of such a word pair. However, this was not the end of the story for the negative use of “awful”.

In modern slang, “awful” may also convey the meaning of “exceedingly great”, as in “There is an awful lot of things to do today”. While the origins of this colloquial meaning are still blurry, it leaves many to speculate if the connotation of fear might have something to do with this. After all, should one have an awful lot of things to do, would they harbour the fear that they would be overwhelmed, or struggle to get all of them done?

So what do you think? Will the concept of awe continue to change, or solidify per the modern dictionary definition? Will we need new words to convey new meanings of awe? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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