Search us!

Search The Word Detective and our family of websites:

This is the easiest way to find a column on a particular word or phrase.

To search for a specific phrase, put it between quotation marks.






Comments are OPEN.

We deeply appreciate the erudition and energy of our commenters. Your comments frequently make an invaluable contribution to the story of words and phrases in everyday usage over many years.

Please note that comments are moderated, and will sometimes take a few days to appear.



shameless pleading





Awful / Awkward / Awesome

Aw shucks

Dear Word Detective: I recently read an item in the news where the writer actually constructed the following clause: “it was something to be awed at.” After my head exploded, I started wondering about “awful,” “awkward,” and “awesome.” Is “aw” in these words coming from some common origin, but now used to mean opposite things? — Chris Schultz.


why go on?

I guess it’s because I’ve been writing professionally for long enough to know that there are times when the old noggin just shuts down and you find yourself typing the most appalling things, but my reflex on reading that clause was to start dreaming up excuses for the writer. Perhaps he or she was writing on a subway platform and the train suddenly arrived. Perhaps the silly putz was dictating while skydiving, and wanted to finish the sentence before pulling the ripcord. Burst water pipes, surprise visits from in-laws, and irate tigers are also possibilities. Or perhaps the culprit is just a hack who wouldn’t recognize the vital serial comma in the preceding sentence.

On the other hand, “to be awed at” may strike us as weird and ugly, but it is not, strictly speaking, any more “wrong” than “to be frightened of” or “to be impressed by.” The verb “to awe” simply means “to inspire feelings of reverential wonder and/or fear.” It would, perhaps, be somewhat less jarring to say one is “awed by” something than “awed at,” but, considering that Americans eat twenty percent of their meals in their cars, we probably shouldn’t be too picky.

That verb “to awe” comes from the noun “awe,” which came from the Old Norse word “agi,” meaning “fright or terror,” and first appeared in the 13th century. “Awe” meaning “fear” was so often used in religious contexts, however, that it gradually acquired the meaning of “fear mixed with respect and reverence” toward, for instance, one’s deity. In secular contexts, “awe” came to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “the feeling of solemn and reverential wonder, tinged with latent fear, inspired by what is terribly sublime and majestic in nature, e.g., thunder, a storm at sea.”

Both “awful” and “awesome” are based on this “awe.” The “some” suffix of “awesome” means “causing or characterized by,” and the “ful” of “awful” originally meant “full of” or “characterized by, inspiring.” The transformation of “awful” from meaning “inspiring awe” to “really bad” came in the 18th century, probably from repeated use of “awful” to mean “so bad as to inspire awe.”

“Awkward” is completely unrelated to “awe,” and comes from the Middle English “awkeward,” meaning “in the wrong way” (ultimately from the Old Norse “afugr” meaning “turned backwards”). When “awkward” first appeared in English in the 14th century, it carried the literal meaning of “turned around backwards,” and it wasn’t until the 16th century that the modern meaning of “clumsy,” in both literal and figurative senses, appeared.

2 comments to Awful / Awkward / Awesome

  • There are a whole bunch of words like ‘awesome’ that today mean something positive but that used to be more neutral or even negative.

    Wonderful used to mean surprising, curious, or shocking. Something that is wonderful makes you think and wonder.

    Fabulous has the same root word as fable, and (like incredible) used to mean something that was too strange to believe.

    Fantastic used to mean something out of imagination or fantasy that wasn’t or couldn’t be real.

    Terrific comes from terror and referred to something that was frightening.

    I keep running across that use of wonderful in Jane Austen, and I think I’ve found fantastic and terrific in their older meanings used by H.G. Wells.

  • […] the 18th century, probably from repeated use of “awful” to mean “so bad as to inspire awe.”…Via Gene Linetsky.Comment Loading… • Post • 9:31am  Add […]

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Please support
The Word Detective

by Subscribing.


Follow us on Twitter!




Makes a great gift! Click cover for more.

400+ pages of science questions answered and explained for kids -- and adults!