All About “Awful”

Is there a shapeshifter* with more of a split personality than awful? Not likely. To understand why this is so, consider the adjective’s root: the noun awe, which went from meaning “fear” in the strongest sense (according to the OED, “immediate and active fear” in the ninth century) to “the feeling of solemn and reverential wonder” some nine centuries later. Today’s opposite-ends-of-the-pole definitions are extremely disagreeable or objectionable (as in “an awful state of affairs”) and exceedingly great (as in “that’s an awful lot of cash, Randy”).

Definitions From Times Past  

At the dawn of the sixteenth century, awful meant both terror-stricken and profoundly respectful or reverential. In the late 1580s Christopher Marlowe used it in the first sense in Dr. Faustus “Monarch of hell under whose black survey great potentates do kneel with awful fear.” Three years later Shakespeare employed the second sense of the word in The Tragedy of King Richard II: “…how dare thy joints forget to pay their awful duty to our presence?”

In the early nineteenth century the word’s terror connotation held firm, though by then awful meant appalling as well as terrifying (“The sight of the mob rampaging through the streets was awful”)  – much more pejorative meanings than the word carries today (think “My morning has been just awful so far”).

In the same period, the adverbial form of of the word also came to mean very, extremely, and exceedingly — definitions that had become cemented in place by the turn of the twenty-first century. Sentences such as “That was awfully [or awful] nice of you, Lucy” couldn’t be any more of a part of the day-by-day lingo of English speakers around the world.

*For more Shapeshifters, click here and here and here.

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