Behind the Dictionary
Lexicographers Talk About Language
The Greatest Love of "Awe"
A recent trip to an amusement park with his sons Doug and Adam got linguist Neal Whitman thinking about the evolution of the word awesome, and how it took such a different historical turn from its sibling awful.
A few weeks ago, we took a family trip Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, which bills itself as the Roller Coaster Capital of the World. Doug and Adam had their sights set on Millennium Force: 310 feet tall, 93 mph maximum speed, with a 300-foot drop at an 80% angle. It opened in (naturally) 2000, and broke at least five records at the time. Adam didn't want to leave Cedar Point without riding Millennium Force, but during the two hours we stood in line, he got more and more nervous.
"I'm nervous, Dad," he said.
"You were nervous before you went off the diving board, and the slide at the swimming pool," I said. "And before you went on the big toilet-bowl waterslide. But do you remember what you said after you did each of those things?"
"'That was awesome!'" Adam said.
"That's right. I think that's what you'll be saying after this ride."
Every fifteen minutes or so, Adam took a reading of Doug's and my levels of anxiety on a scale of 0 to 100, comparing them to his own. Just before we arrived at the platform, my wife bailed out of the line, offering to take Adam with her. Adam was registering a 40, but stayed in line. As we stood at the gate waiting for our coaster to arrive, Adam rated himself at well above 50, and was almost shaking as he tried to hold on to his resolve. But when the gate opened, he took a deep breath, walked to the car, and climbed in.
* * *
I'd told Adam he'd be saying, "That was awesome!" after he rode Millenium Force. It's a sign of how much the meaning of awesome has changed that if it still had its original meaning, he would have been calling Millennium Force "awesome" before he rode it.
Awesome, and its sibling awful, are suffixed versions of the word awe, which goes all the way back to the Old English period, when it was spelled ege, æge, and a few other ways. Back then, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, awe meant fear. By a thousand years ago, it meant fear with an undercurrent of respect. By two hundred fifty years ago, it meant respect with an undercurrent of fear, a meaning it still has today. In 1851, in a definition so on the mark that the OED included it in its entry for the word, John Ruskin defined awe as the recognition of something as highly dangerous, even though it does not pose an immediate threat to oneself. He compared it to watching "a stormy sea from the shore."
Awesome wasn't part of the language at the time, but awful was; the OED's first citation for it is from 885. The original meaning would seem to be obvious: "full of awe." So you would think awful would have been used to describe people who were in awe of something. It wasn't. Instead, it described the things that people were in awe of. I'd give you the citation from 885, but you have to read Old English to make sense of it. Instead, here's the OED's first citation for awful in easier-to-read Modern English, from Daniel Defoe in 1722: "The other scene was awful and full of terror." The reason for this unexpected meaning is that from its earliest days until a couple of hundred years ago, awe could also mean the power to inspire fear or respect, so awful could refer to something that had this power. Eventually, awful did acquire the expected "full of awe" meaning —about 700 years later. The OED cites an example from Shakespeare's Richard II: "How dare thy ioynts forget / To pay their awfull dutie to our presence?"
At about the same time that awful was finally developing its "full of awe" meaning, awesome appeared on the scene. Its original meaning is confusing, too. What does the suffix -some mean, anyway? It's not a productive suffix in present-day English. The OED simply calls it an adjective-forming suffix. In other words, like the modern adjective-forming suffix -y, it says, "this word is an adjective," and that's about all. So when awesome entered the language, it had the potential to mean anything that had something to do with awe. According to the OED, awesome had both the older and the newer meanings of awful: commanding fear or respect, and being full of fear or respect. Its first citation for the "full of respect" meaning uses awsome along with wise and wittie to refer to personality traits. Its first citation for the "commanding fear or respect" meaning refers to the sight of Jesus' cross as "awsome."
Four hundred years ago, then, both awful and awesome had the same two meanings. That couldn't last. Even today, when two words share just one meaning, speakers look for, imagine, or create meaning differences. Awful was the first to go its own way. In the early 1800s, it began to take on its current meaning of really bad, a semantic development that's not so surprising, given that it had described things that inspired fear. The OED has an 1809 citation that talks about a nation being in an awful situation. From around the same time are the first examples of awful used as an adverb meaning "very" (as in "That's awful nice of you"), a development that reminds me of the New England usage of the adjective wicked as an intensifying adverb (as in "This salsa is wicked hot!"). Corresponding changes happened to the already-existing adverbial form awfully: As a verbal modifier, it came to mean "badly" instead of "in a fearful or reverential manner," and as an adjectival or adverbial modifier, it came to mean "very" instead of "to a degree that inspires fear."
About 200 years after awful came to mean "really bad," awesome drifted semantically in the opposite direction. The semantic weakening of awesome seems to have begun in the mid-20th century, as it evolved to mean simply "impressive," without any evident idea of fear. The OED dates this change as early as 1961, but the Google News Archive turns up a possible 1948 example from the Hartford Courant: "We of the medical profession are fond of awesome words...."
From there, the next step was the weakening of the "impressive" meaning to simply one of "enthusiastic approval" (in the words of the OED). This is the awesome that came to prominence in the 1980s with the Valley Girl stereotype, and especially with the 1982 song "Valley Girl" and 1983 movie of the same name. In fact, though, the OED actually has its earliest citation from 1979, in a sports headline on the Philadelphia 76ers. GNA turns up what looks to be an earlier attestation in 1973, in an article about the hobby of building your own hot air balloons. One enthusiast says, "It's nice to say you've built something that large and floaty, and so kind of awesome." It's arguable, though, since something as big as a hot air balloon might well be impressive enough to fit the older meaning of awesome.
The awesome of enthusiastic approval has spread to so many speakers that a 2008 article in Salon actually reminisces for the good old days, when only young people used awesome this way, instead of people like then-President George W. Bush.
The latest development of awesome goes beyond meaning change; awesome has developed into a different part of speech, too. Not an adverb, the way awful did, but a noun. Not in the ordinary way, by adding a suffix like –ness (though awesomeness is definitely in use), but by simply using it as a noun. And not just any noun, but a mass noun (i.e. one like beer or grass, that doesn't have to have a word like the before it). People talk about things or people they approve of being not merely awesome, but "made of awesome." The TV Tropes and Idioms website has a specific term for "the moment when a fictional character does something for which they will be remembered forever, winning for them the eternal loyalty of fans: It's their crowning moment of awesome. There's even a web show called Awesomeology, whose title suffixes the noun awesome with the suffix –ology to produce a new noun.
Actually, this mass-nounification is part of a larger change in the language. It has happened to awful, too, as well as other adjectives. For example, here's a line from an online review of a video game from 2002: "[I]t's made by Jaleco, so you can practically guarantee that this game is going to be a big bowl of awful." It's also happened to verbs, especially win and fail. Suck is popular, too; for an illustration, TV Tropes and Idioms has a term for the opposite of crowning moment of awesome; it's dethroning moment of suck. Interjections such as yes and no have also become mass nouns.
With both awful and awesome so far away from their ominous earlier meanings, how is a writer to describe something like, say, the power of Millenium Force to ensweaten palms and hatch butterflies in one's stomach? There are still some options: awe-inspiring and awe-commanding seem to work. The Visual Thesaurus also suggests awing, and about half a dozen adjectives that are morphologically unrelated to awe, including fearsome, dire, and dreaded.
* * *
The safety bars locked into place, the coaster pulled away from the platform, and it was too late for the three of us to chicken out. Five minutes later, Doug and Adam ran to meet their mother, who was waiting on a bench at the exit. Adam was still wearing the grin that had stretched across his face from the time our coaster came to a stop.
My wife smiled when she saw us. "So how was—"
Adam drowned her out with his yell: "That was AWESOME!"