Why does not awful mean full of awe?

4 minute read

Langauges evolve. They grow with people and as their usage, pronunciations, and purpose of words begin to change. A lot of the words have mutliple meanings. These multitudes of meanings fade in and out of existence. Like a leaderboard of a soccer league. This usually happens on a scale of time that isn’t immediately perceptible to us. So we often forget that languages are not static. 1

The word awful is a conjunction of awe+ful. That makes it sound like it should mean something like “full of awe”, right?

awe
/ɔː/
noun
    1.  a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.
    	"they gazed in awe at the small mountain of diamonds"

But it doesn’t!

Where did the current meaning we attribute to awful as very bad or unpleasant come from?

Did it begin with two meanings in full of fear and full of wonder? They are opposites! Maybe later one of the meaning dropped out of popular use.

However, why did one meaning dropped out of popular use?

Why did not the meaning full of fear survive?

If someone famous uses a word in a certain way at a certain time, can that influence what people think about that word?

Can an advertising campaign change the meaning of a word? 2

Answer to these questions requires digging into the specifics and following the story of the word along its all lexical units. I will not do that now because questions are sometimes more interesting. If this word indeed flipped its meaning, that is truly fascinating too! What kind of duration would that shift have required?

Do you wonder the same questions about a sister word awesome which is awe-some or perhaps some awe(?). Awesome isn’t a pejorative. Then why awful? A lot of these questions don’t have a clear answer but this post by Kosmonaut on English Stack Exchange sets a lot straight.

The words have been around hundreds and hundreds of years. While they were constructed by combining awe with -ful or -some, once they became lexical items as complete words, their meaning was able to drift like any other lexical item — the fact that each word is composed of a stem and suffix doesn’t stop this. (Also, bear in mind that -some, the suffix, doesn’t mean “some of X”, it means “having the quality of X”. Think fearsome, loathsome, cumbersome. And -ful is basically the same as -some in its meaning, with all words.)

Originally, awful had the meaning of being awe-inspiring (including positive connotations), as well as “worthy of, or commanding, profound respect or reverential fear.” It was not a far stretch to then use it also to mean “Causing dread; terrible, dreadful, appalling.” The earliest records of these uses date back to at least 1000 AD. Between 1000 and 1800, the word evolved to the current meaning: “Frightful, very ugly, monstrous; and hence as a mere intensive deriving its sense from the context = Exceedingly bad, great, long, etc.”

Awesome came around much later than awful. It is first recorded in 1598, after awful had been around hundreds of years. Perhaps the need for this word arose because awful had already taken on such a strong negative connotation by this time. So awesome stepped in to again have the meaning of “awe-inspiring”, but without the strong negative connotations. Ultimately, in the mid-1900s, the word awesome went from awe-inspiring to its more common use today: “amazing, great, etc.”

So, this is how the words ended up like this. Yes, you do have to memorize the words to some extent, because they have certain connotations and colloquial meanings that are extremely common. But, again, part of the problem is treating -some like some. None of the -some words have a connection to the current meaning of some.

Now a lot of people say that this is bad design. Frenchmen regulate and police their language and its usage to make sure it stays true to their standards. Languages certainly have some basic rules that give it a structure and makes things somewhat coherent among its speakers. But apart from those rules, most languages of the word interact with the world around their speakers in multiple ways. There are loan words, bastardizations, new structures that let us realize the new science, there are memes all around, etc. All of that with some sugar, spice and everything nice makes a great recipe for a cultural force that is beyond our abilities to control.

Some of these factors work together to give us a language that gives us words for full of awe and some awe that don’t mean anything like that. You might call this the stupidity of langauge but I do not think that is the case. In fact, expecting an epistemological tool like langauge to follow the rules of logic would be non-intuitive. All of the weird stuff that goes in languages make it so special.

  1. Language Change and Historical Reconstruction, Lecture Notes from Linguistics 101, University of Pennsylvania 

  2. Edward Bernays in 1930s led an advertising campaign with the intent to make green a fashionable color in the next few years. Green was the color of packs of Lucky Strike Cigarettes. This was a time of neck to neck competition between the Lucky Strike, Old Gold and Camel. As cigarettes from different brands are inherently the same rolled tobacco sticks, it enabled a cambrian explosion of advertising strategies. Bernays, a cousin of Sigmund Freud, began writing to fashion designers, interior decorators, art directors, and city planners. They wanted subtle hints of green to be dropped in movies, advertisments, and consumer products. Bernays invented Public Relations meanwhile. Professionally pushing for the smallest details to market the brand which happened to be a color. By the end of it, Lucky Strike had overtaken the other two as the highest selling cigarette brand.