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An awfully awesome contrast in meaning

At this point and time, it's pretty clear that the words "awful" and "awesome" aren't interchangeable. But why do their prefixes sound identical?

Our listener Kalen asks: “Why is ‘awesome’ a positive word and ‘awful’ a negative word?”

This is a great example of how two words can start in the same place and end up with quite different meanings.

Since both of these words meant “awe-inspiring” at one point in their lives, we should look at “awe” first.

“Awe” has changed meaning over time, which helps explain why “awful” and “awesome” have changed over time. Early on, “awe” meant fear or dread. Therefore, to be “awe-inspiring” meant to inspire awe or dread.

However, later on “awe” comes to mean respectful fear or reverence – for example, someone could be in awe of the dead. This shift affects “awesome” and “awful.”

The earliest meaning of “awful” is to cause dread or be terrible as well as to be worthy of profound respect. By the Renaissance “awful” could still refer to something that is solemnly impressive – that’s why we sometimes see translations of the Bible that refer to an “awful God.”

By the early 1800s, we start to see some slang uses of “awful” to mean ugly, frightful, or monstrous – meanings that are much closer to what we have today. At some point, “awful” also becomes an intensifier: “I’m awfully sad.”

“Awesome” is a little more recent than “awful.” The Oxford English Dictionary puts its earliest usages back to 1598 – it meant full of awe or profoundly reverential.

However, even in the 1600s, “awesome” could mean to inspire awe in the sense of inspiring dread. And, like “awful,” there are still biblical translations that refer to an “awesome God.”

By the 20th century, the meaning of “awesome” weakens to mean remarkable or staggering.  Additionally, by the 1970s, we start to see it used as an exclamative or affirmative: “How was your vacation?” he asked.  “Awesome!” she said.

Can you think of other words that sound similar but have very different meanings?


Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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