Words Get New Meanings: Is that Awesome or Aweful?

Posted on: October 19, 2009
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The Etymology of the word Awesome

 

By Rocky Reichman

 
 

“Awesome!”
 

Today this word is synonymous with cool. It’s used to describe something as exciting or special. “That new video game is awesome.”
 

But this isn’t what awesome really is. Awe means “fear, respect.” It’s describes someone or something that is “revered and feared,” not “cool” or “hot.” At least that’s what it used to mean. Check old literature. Read the Bible. The first testament uses the word “awe” often, denoting god or some higher figure. Is the bible calling anyone or anything “cool”? No way! It’s using the traditional definition of awesome, to describe something as feared or respected. Here’s the etymology of awesome to prove my point.
 

Ignore the suffix, -some, (we will discuss suffixes later). Go to the root of the word: awe is “a mixed feeling of reverence, fear and wonder, caused by something majestic, sublime, sacred.” When used archaically, as in the Bible, awe more specifically is “the power of inspiring intense fear or fearful reverence.” Another definition: “terror, dread.”
 

Awe and awesome do not mean “cool.” Terror, dread. Reverence, wonder, fear. These words more aptly describe awesome. And the etymology is even further removed from today’s popular usage of “cool.” Awe comes from Middle English age, aghe, awe. It’s derived from Old Norse agi, from the Indo-European base agh-, which means “to be depressed, afraid.” The word originates from Old English ege from Gothic agis and ultimately beginning as Greek archos. (Definitions and etymology both from Webster’s New World Dictionary).
 

Aweful is related to awesome. Does that word sound “cool” to you? Aweful is something that’s “ugly, unpleasant.” It’s a word that “causes fear.” “It’s “terrifying.” If “dreadful” and “terrifying” really do sound “cool” to you, then you need to see a specialist (or kindly admit yourself into the nearest pshyiatric ward). “Cool” and “fear” are not similar. These words aren’t friends, either. In fact, today’s awesome is quite the opposite of the awesome of yesterday.
 

Now for the final question. How did Awesome go from being a “feared and revered” word to “cool and inspiring” ? The answer lies in the word’s definition. Awesome does mean “feared, revered.” But it also means something that inspires through wonder or grandeur.
 

Gotcha! “Fear” has nothing to do with “Cool.” But the words “wonder, inspiration” do. When someone describes a roller coaster or new movie as “awesome,” they are not referring to the “fear and respected” definition. They’re describing something as wonderous, inspiring. Which fits with today’s meaning of awesome: words like “wonderous, inpiring, grandeur” are similar to “exciting” or even “cool.” An awesome rollercoaster may not be revered. But can it be wonderous, exciting? Sure. Hence, the “cool” awesome does have roots in the word’s original definition. But users must still be careful that they know what a word really means before they use it.
 

Awesome has become an acceptable substitute for words like “cool,” “hot, “amazing” and “exciting.” So don’t be afraid to use it next time you see something cool. And make sure aweful doesn’t go “cool” like awesome did. That would be just aweful.

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