awful

The world can be awful, and words can be awful.

Wait! Things change!

The meanings of words, for one thing. Take awful for example. It’s a word bequeathed to us from Old English, made of the parts that have become our words awe and full.

So wouldn’t that mean that something that is awful is full of awe? So that if something inspires awe in you you’ll be awful?

Well, yeah, there are many people who use being awestruck to excuse awful behaviour. But the earliest sense of the word, by centuries, is ‘awe-inspiring’ – and by ‘awe’ we can also mean ‘dread’ or ‘fear’. It’s as though awe is a thing that its possessor imbues its beholders with, like radiation.

That sense, and that sense alone, was what the word held until the late 1500s, when it finally gained the sense of ‘filled with awe’. Both those senses were current in Shakespeare’s time: In Henry VI, part 2, we get “Thy hand is made to grasp a palmer’s staff, And not to grace an aweful princely sceptre”; in Richard II, speaking of kneeling before a king, “how dare thy joints forget To pay their awful duty to our presence?”

Not until the early 1800s did the negative sense emerge, and even then it still conveyed dread at first – awful was used conversationally (especially in New England) to mean ‘dreadful’ in a sense initially literal but soon somewhat bleached… like dreadful, and terrible, and other things such as lousy (rarely used to mean ‘lice-infested’ now). The path of awfully has been similar: first ‘causing reverence or fear’; only in the early 1800s used as a general intensifier.

Such is the way of words. Senses change over time, and there is no use in fighting it; as in the world, so with the words: we are the speakers of the language, and so we make the trouble, and the enemy is us. We would do better to make light of it. Look, for instance, at old poems with the earlier sense intended. See Kiping in 1899 rhyme off this:

Lord of our far-flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine

That dominion does seem awful to us now. See Walter Scott in 1820 call the Bible “that awful volume,” a sentiment that has remained popular with the shifting sense of awful (but never forget that it is the book that tells us that peacemakers and gentle people are blessed). And consider a more sesquiotic reading of this bellicose verse from 1785 by William Cowper:

Should England prosper, when such things, as smooth
And tender as a girl, all essenc’d o’er
With odors, and as profligate as sweet,
Who sell their laurel for a myrtle wreath,
And love when they should fight; when such as these
Presume to lay their hand upon the ark
Of her magnificent and awful cause?

Many things we used to think were awful have turned out to be, yes, awful. There can be much that is awful in the world and in the words.

But never forget: there can be much that is awfully good too.

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