Wandering among Words 6: Awe
I’m no etymologist but I do like exploring the genealogies of words: quite often these interrelated family trees reveal the real power of both the spoken and the written word, a kind of magic that’s so much stronger than the weak usage ancient roots are treated to over time.
The word ‘awe’ — meaning a kind of reverence shading from wonder to fear — has, in various combinations, assumed different weightings.
We can, for example, be ‘awe-struck‘. This to me conveys that sense of having respect for something greater or better than one’s self. It can come from a jaw-dropping moment, or when one is lost for appropriate words, or when we succumb to uttering a panoply of rich expletives in spite of our better natures.
Now, ‘awful‘ (which should imply being full of awe, or having the power to convey that awe) tends to incline towards the bad end of a state of affairs, as in the comparable modern meaning of ‘dreadful’. Life-threatening situations, natural disasters and human misfortunes of various kinds elicit the use of ‘awful’. As an adjective, however, its strength has been diluted by both overuse and misuse: “Those clothes look awful on you.” — I’ve got a headache, and I feel awful. — Or, a fine use of Exaggeration, as in “That’s awfully kind of you…”)
And then we come to the weakest of all of awe‘s manifestations: ‘awesome‘. Here is now a word sucked dry of any real meaning, reduced to the blandness of ‘nice’ or even ‘okay’. You’ve finished the box set from Netflix? Awesome. You’ve posted a snap of your restaurant meal on Instagram? Ditto. And what is it you could express about this rambling, incoherent and unfocused blog post? Go on, say it: you know you want to!
Meanwhile ‘awe’ is frequently misspelled as ‘aw’. This John Wayne joke illustrates it exactly:
The great actor was playing the centurion present at Jesus’ crucifixion. “Truly this was the Son of God,” he drawled. “More awe, John, please,” asked the director, and the great actor complied, drawling, “Aww, truly this was the Son of God.”
Now, what do we think about ‘terrific’, as in It’s terrific that you remember to do all those little jobs everyday? It’s terrifying, isn’t it?
Yes, I know that’s how language works: we use concrete metaphors to express abstract concepts and so their original meanings become distorted or watered down in their new surroundings. That’s why terrific is less ‘horrifying’ than horrific, even though their roots initially grew in parallel.
When words become so divorced from their first meanings, however, there’s a danger that they become prey to deliberate misuse, to mean whatever the speaker wants them to mean. This was the case with the Soviet propaganda paper Pravda (‘Truth’), with Big Brother’s Newspeak (in Orwell’s 1984), with Humpty-Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland and with Humpty’s modern apotheosis, Donald Trump. (And a few others we can point to.)
If all that isn’t properly awesome, inspiring wonder and not a little fear, then I don’t know what is.
* Awe is apparently related to a Greek word cognate with ‘ache’ … but maybe discussion on the ramifications of this relationship is for another time.