Silly Philology| Awesome vs. Awful

Why is it better to experience some awe than to be filled with awe?

This question has been a perennial rock in my shoe. It crops up in the old noggin, I chew it over for a while and freak out a little bit, then some how I let it go for a couple months. As with all of my Silly Philology posts, this is not life or death type stuff, rather, it’s a quirky little thing that eats at me in the shower or right before I go to bed. But I think it’s still a worthwhile observation. It’s so curious how the English language morphs and in many cases, degenerates. Our language is so weird. Maybe by writing this post I can finally clear my shoe and enjoy some cognitive rest.

So what’s the deal with awful and awesome? What’s the connection here? Well, the root word for both awful and awesome is “awe”. Awe can most readily be understood as “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.” On that definition the word “awesome” totally makes sense. According to dictionary dot com, “-some” is “a native English suffix formerly used in the formation of adjunctives: quarrelsome; burdensome”. So there’s no reason to freak out if we agree with Google that the word awesome means, “extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear.” Or if we look at the etymology of “awesome”, we see “awe” + “-some” = “filled with awe”. No problem here. But brace yourselves…

Things get ridiculous when we look at the definition of “awful”. If you google “awful” right now, it’ll define the word as “very bad or unpleasant”.

But maybe it’s not so bad, what does it use as an example?
“The place smelled awful”
What?! Ok, but how about the synonyms?
“disgusting, horrible, terrible, dreadful, ghastly, nasty, vile, foul, revolting, repulsive, repugnant, odious, sickening, nauseating, etc..”
Seriously, what?!

This is yet another case of an English word being completely flipped on it’s head.
Maybe we’re just confused about the word awful? What’s it’s etymology?
It’s just “awe” and “-ful”.
Well, what’s “-ful”?
Yeah, “-ful” means “full of”.
So this word should mean “full of awe”?
Yup.
Crap.

Do you get why I’m bothered? This makes no sense. I did some more research and apparently we’re not supposed to be upset by this bastardization of “awful” because guys like Keats, and William Blake started using it in “todays sense” back in the late 18th century. If you’re anything like me then that’s of little to no comfort. Why do we keep transforming words to mean the opposite of what they’re supposed to mean?

I guess if you see a sunset and it fills you with some awe, then it’s an awesome sunset. But as soon as that sunset fills you with awe to the point at which you’re full of awe, then that sunset becomes an awful sunset. Sweet. Good job English speakers.

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