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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.


Home Sweet Hut

Dear Word Detective: In New Hampshire, Spring doesn’t officially arrive until “ice out” is declared — but we start getting our hopes up for warmer weather when the local news anchors remind us that’s it’s time to bring in the bobhouses for the year. While the local population generally knows what a “bobhouse” is (a portable fishing shanty, placed on a frozen body of water, to protect the fisherman while he/she fishes through a hole in its floor), no one seems to know the term’s origins. Some say it’s from the “bob” on the line that lets the fisherman know he’s hooked something. Some say it’s from the way the shanties themselves might bob a few times before going under, when their owners forget to bring them in off the ice before the Spring thaw. While I haven’t yet heard anyone claim that it’s for some legendary fisherman named “Bob,” I suppose I shouldn’t dismiss that possibility out of hand. I’m actually wondering, though, if it’s from a similar origin as “bobsleigh,” referring to the short runners sometimes mounted on the bottom to make it easier to shift the shanty out on the ice. Can you defrost the history on this one? — Katrina.

That’s an interesting question. I’ve never given much thought to ice fishing, possibly because I grew up next to the Atlantic Ocean, which only freezes every few million years.


OK, now put me back.

I can find no indication that “bobhouse” has anything to do with anyone named “Bob,” although, knowing how people love colorful word origin stories, I’m sure that if anyone ever starts a “bobhouse museum,” an apocryphal “Bob” (perhaps even a “Bob House”) will appear in its brochures.

As for the verb “to bob,” meaning “to move up and down,” a 1954 article cited in the Dictionary of American Regional English confidently traces the term “bobhouse” to just such a motion: “Some fishermen have wire springs that bob up and down, whence the name ‘bob house’.” It’s unclear from that snippet whether the springs are mounted on the houses, the fishing lines, or the fishermen themselves, although I suppose it must refer to the lines. I’m actually very skeptical of this assertion, however. Even if some icefishers did attach springs to their lines, that hardly seems a sufficiently novel practice to determine the name of such an outlandish structure as a tiny hut sitting on a frozen lake. The springs, in other words, are not the story here.

I’d be willing to bet, on the other hand, that your hunch is correct and that the “bob” in “bobhouse” is the same “bob” as is found in “bobsleigh” (or “bobsled”), “bobtail” and a slew of other “bob”-words. This “bob” comes from the verb “to bob,” meaning “to cut short” (as a horse with cropped tail is called “bobtailed”). The verb “to bob” came from the noun “bob,” which originally meant “a bunch, lump or cluster,” possibly from the Irish word “baban,” meaning “cluster” (of grapes, etc.). In the case of “bobhouse,” the term simply means a “bobbed,” i.e., extremely small, house or hut.

Incidentally, the verb “to bob” meaning “to bounce up and down” is considered a separate word from “to bob” meaning “to cut short,” but the two may be related through the noun “bob” in its original sense of “lump.” In English “bob” took on several meanings in the sense of “hanging weight,” including the weight on a fishing line or pendulum. The “bouncing” verb kind of “bob” may well have been inspired by the motion of such “bobs.”

Above board

And the company jet is for when I have to look something up at the Cancun Public Library.

Dear Word Detective: A vendor of ours assured us (or tried to) that his company is operating “above board.” What is the origin of “above board”? — Chris.

This is really about the bonuses, isn’t it? Won’t you people ever stop? This whole thing is an enormous, gargantuan, obscenely bloated misunderstanding. We columnists were promised those bonuses years ago, probably long before any of you whiners were born. And if it weren’t for the promise of those teensy-tiny checks, we all probably would have jumped ship for some more lucrative occupation, perhaps dog-grooming, years ago. Besides, recent studies have shown that the average consumer doesn’t know the difference between a billion and a bullion, so what’s the problem? You have something against soup?


Not your friend.

But seriously, that’s a good question, and it raises another question about that vendor. As old Willie Shakespeare put it in a slightly different context, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Well, methinks that a vendor who is truly honest wouldn’t take such pains to proclaim his honesty. That’s reminiscent of the waiter who asks, “OK, which one of you ordered the clean glass?”

“Above board” means, of course, “open, fair, candid, honest and forthright,” or, in the word of the moment, “transparent.” Dealings that are “above board” are rigorously legal, legitimate and open to inspection. Nobody “knows a guy who knows a guy” and nothing “fell off a truck” when everything is truly “above board.”

“Above board” first appeared in print, as far as is known, in the late 16th century, and the phrase originated in the world of gambling, in particular card games. To play “above board” was to keep your cards above the level of the playing table (as opposed to down in your lap) so as to avoid any suspicion of cheating. The “board” in the phrase is simply an old use of “board,” common at the time, to mean “table.” The same sense of “board” is also found in “boardroom,” originally just a room with a large table around which a governing council or the like met. Eventually the term was extended to the group itself, which is why corporations today have a “Board” of Directors. “Board” was also extended to mean “dining table” and the food found there, which gave us “room and board” (room plus meals) and “boarding house,” where your rent covers both your room and at least some of your meals.

Interestingly, the “open, honest” sense of “above board” we use today is a figurative use of the gambling term, but it appeared almost simultaneously with the first appearance of the literal sense, which is unusually rapid for such a transformation. I guess the world was just waiting for a better way to say “I am not a crook.”