Awe, or just plain Aw?

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.

I’ve already looked at some loose groupings of words and phrases and their meanings: (1) Water, (2) Corvid,
(3) Time, (4) Strangers, and (5) Upside Down. I now come to awe.*

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.

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25 thoughts on “Awe, or just plain Aw?

  1. I loved this. Language is so fascinating. I like the biblical meaning of awe. I really don’t use the word awesome much, I am a bit shy, since I always connect awe to God, and the fear and wonder He inspires, lol. But that’s me.

    1. Yes, awe is often used in the religious sense, but even for atheists like me the word can still express a feeling that’s akin to (for want of a better term) spiritual. A sunset, a night sky, clouds scudding along a mountainside, a magnificent piece of art, an emotional reaction in humans or animals — these all can produce a sense of awe in me. This is the awe I value, more than the awe that a Catholic upbringing equated with a fear of God.

      1. Yes, I agree. That awe inspires a fear in the sense of respect, not an irrational fear, a feeling of being in front of someone more powerful than anyone else, capable of so much.
        (I am loving The Inverted World so much, it’s all that I love in a SF book.)

          1. Why does it frustrate some? (I am 100 out of 300 pages, but it fascinates me, it is all I wish for in SF) I am keen on books that make me ponder about philosophical and ethical musings.

            1. Those who prefer ‘hard SF’ (that is, fiction that speculates on what might happen when current scientific and technological facts are extrapolated into the future) have pointed to the pseudoscientific concepts bandied around (infinite worlds in a finite space, or a world shaped like a hyperbola), the unrealistic depiction of a supposedly infinite power source for the city, the impracticality of carrying unlimited provisions and materials to sustain and maintain a moving city while trading with isolated communities on the way, and so on and so forth.

              For me, not being very scientific or technological, such concerns are very secondary: I’m much more interested in the people, the narrative and the ideas than whether such a way of life can really be sustained or prove practical. ๐Ÿ˜Š

            2. I see. I kind of thought that some concepts were a bit iffy, but I am like you, I totally leave the scientific details aside, -I’m not scientific nor technological either, and enjoy the story, the people, the way they live in that dystopian scenario. (Now I understand. ‘Hard SF may be for more scientific oriented minds.) Maybe we prefer the dystopia that is more preoccupied with ethics and morality, right?

  2. Awesome! ๐Ÿ˜› That’s the one that popped into mind when I looked at the title of your post — you’re right — that’s probably the worst case of the word being turned into something else entirely — poor awesome.
    I didn’t actually even connect aw/aww with ‘awe’ till I read your post.

    1. I’m glad this helped join up the dots for you! I do love word play, from well-composed cryptic crosswords (though I do these less these days) to those old Reader’s Digest features like ‘It pays to increase your word power’. I think, failing access to the Internet, the book I may take to my notional desert island would be the Shorter Oxford Dictionary or any other etymologically-based reference book… ๐Ÿ˜

        1. In years gone past I used to do them with other teachers in the staffroom at lunchtimes — until teaching got so stressy that our free time was no longer free — and carried on for a bit when I retired. Until blogging came along… ๐Ÿ˜

          1. Teaching these days is a lot more stressful than it was earlier. I agree about blogging. I find now that I’ve become more ‘regular’ at it, my thoughts are often directed there and what I should be working on next ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Awe, ign-awe-ring the Cockney versions involving the omission of the ‘h’ like ‘awrse, awe ‘awser, awe ‘ ‘aweticulture’, has a lot of branches from the awedinary to the extra awedinary like awegasms and aweganisms. (Note what a vast difference ‘ni’ added or left off makes to those two!)

  4. MrsB_inthehills

    Fascinating things, words. I completely agree that meanings are watered down through mis-use or over-use – ‘amazing’ being the one that immediately springs to mind.

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