The Grammarphobia Blog

An awful mess

Q: I’m curious about why “awesome” means amazing, but “awful” means horrible. One would think that if something was awful, it would be full of awe, right? I’m going on the assumption that “awesome” and “awful” have different roots, but it would be nice to have a little more insight.

A: Actually, both “awesome” and “awful” have the same root: the noun “awe,” a very, very old word that dates back to Anglo-Saxon days.

When “awe” appeared in the Old English Chronicles around the year 855, it meant fear, terror, or dread, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

As “awe” came to be used in reference to God, the OED says, its meaning evolved: “Dread mingled with veneration, reverential or respectful fear; the attitude of mind subdued to profound reverence in the presence of supreme authority, moral greatness or sublimity, or mysterious sacredness.”

Interestingly, the adjective “awful” is a lot older than “awesome.” When “awful” was first used by Alfred the Great around the year 885, it meant terrible, dreadful, appalling. If you remember, that was back when “awe” itself meant fear, terror, or dread.

When “awesome” made its initial appearance in the late 16th century, it meant profoundly reverential. By then, of course, “awe” had evolved too.

But I don’t want to mislead you. Language is a messy business. For hundreds of years, both “awful” and “awesome” were used in positive as well as negative senses.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that “awesome” lost much of its awe and settled down to its usual modern meanings of remarkable, overwhelming, marvelous, and great.

By then, as you know, “awful” meant awful. But even now “awful” is sometimes used in a more positive way – as an intensifier. Example: “I made an awful lot of money in the market before stocks headed south.”

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