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.
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.