Word Origin: Awesome

What if we were to say God is awful? Some centuries ago, it would not be offensive. In fact, it would have been the most appropriate word to use. The story of words in the family of awe is, as we say these days, awesome!

 

The word awe entered the English language around the 13th century from the Old Norse word agi, meaning ‘fright’ or ‘terror’. The verb ‘to awe’ meant something that instils reverential wonder or fear.

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The original meaning of awful was ‘something full of awe’, or ‘something that needs to be respected and feared’. Only someone like God could be awful. Over the years the word was used so much, and even for trivial things, that it came to denote something really bad. Perhaps awful was used for something so bad that it made one fear or despise it. With awful losing its original meaning, a new word had to take its place. It was then that awesome was used in its place.

 

In fact, awesome entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1598. Not surprisingly, back then, the meaning was different. Awesome meant someone feeling awe rather than someone inspiring it. It could have been used like this: ‘I saw the bolt of lightning, and I was awesome.’ In the 1630s, awestruck entered the dictionary, which denoted someone filled with reverential fear. It was not long before awesome could be used with a new meaning. In 1664, a Presbyterian sermoniser wrote, “The sight of his cross is more awesome than the weight of it.” This is the first recorded appearance of the word in its non-traditional meaning, according to journalist Robert Lane Greene, who wrote about it in More Intelligent Life magazine.

 

In 20th century translations of the Bible, awesome was used to describe God. There are many verses in the Old Testament where God is, well, awesome. For instance, Psalm 68 has a verse which says, “You are awesome, God, in your sanctuaries.”

 

In the meantime, the change in the usage of awesome had already begun. A 1980 bestseller The Official Preppy Handbook, a tongue-in-cheek guide to ‘preppy’ (American slang for graduate student) life, was one of the first to give sanction to the current usage of the word. It defined awesome as ‘terrific or great’. Within no time, this meaning took over, and soon was being used all over the US for anything remotely good.

 

Awesome in this new form, hit the Indian shores with the BPO industry. Along with their American accents, young trainees also picked up American words, with awesome being considered one of the trendier ones. Radio jockeys at the new FM stations started using the word frequently for anything even mildy good. These days, TV channels are using awesomeness to describe either themselves or their programmes, in an (awful!) attempt to make the noun form of the word stylish. But recently, an advertising campaign of a clothing brand had hoardings all over that used familiar buzzwords like dude, and awesome, but with ironic overtones, perhaps signalling that their cool quotient is now dipping.

 

You can also read the post at http://talkmag.in/cms/columns/keywords/item/210-awesome

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