When I type awesome into the search box on urbandictionary.com,* the first definition that pops up is “something Americans use to describe everything,” and the second is “a ‘sticking plaster’ word used by Americans to cover over the huge gaps in their vocabularies. It is one of the three words which make up most American sentances [sic]. The American vocabulary consists of just three words: Omygod, awesome and shit.” Both these definitions date to 2006, and presumably both are from Britons. (The second is written by the aptly named “Spleenvent.”) In addition to demonstrating the validity of McKean’s Law, which states that any criticism of another’s language will itself contain at least one error, these definitions are pretty good, if highly informal, descriptions of how the word is used today. You have to go to the third entry to find a “real” definition: “formidable, amazing, heart-stirring, wonderful. Veronica Mars fans are awesome.” But this state of affairs was not always so.
This sense is a relatively recent development, although from the perspective of today’s teens it is a thoroughly decrepit and creaky one. The earliest citation the Oxford English Dictionary has for this sense is from The Official Preppy Handbook, published in 1980, and the exclamation awesome! can only be dated to 1979. Before that, the word existed with a somewhat milder meaning of remarkable or prodigious, but even this sense only dates to the early 1960s.
Awesome’s original meaning, which is recorded as early as 1598, is quite literal: full of awe, reverential. Within a century it had developed a second sense of inspiring awe. The word continued, quite happily, to be used in these senses until twentieth-century teens made it their own.
Similarly, awful originally meant causing terror or dread, or frightening, inspiring reverential fear—God could be awful. The word did not simply mean very bad.
Awful is a much older word, dating back to Old English, the language spoken in England before the Norman Conquest of 1066. The following is from the late ninth-century translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy into Old English, a translation that is generally attributed to King Alfred the Great:
[Cicero] cyðde on sumre his boca ðæt þa get Romane nama ne come ofer þa muntas þe we hatað Caucaseas [...] ac he wes þeah þærymbutan manegum folce swiðe egefull.
([Cicero] says in one of his books that at the time the name of the Romans had not yet come over the mountains that we call the Caucasus […] but it was nevertheless very awful to many folk thereabouts.)
For awful in this passage, we can read fearsome or frightening.
The modern sense of awful meaning very bad dates to the beginning of the nineteenth century. The earliest citation of this sense in the Oxford English Dictionary is by Thomas Green Fessenden (1771-1837), a journalist, satirical poet, and early American political pundit. (Fessenden also wrote extensively about farming and gardening. Go figure.) In 1809, he penned a sentiment that is very familiar to us today:
I fear our [...] nation is in an awful situation.
Evidently the meaning of words changes faster than the nature of political commentary.
* = Your results may vary. This is what I got when I searched for the word on 17 January 2015.
“awesome, adj.” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, with addition from June 2010.
“awesome.” Urbandictionary.com. Accessed 17 January 2015.
“awful, adj.” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
Godden, Malcolm and Susan Irvine, eds. The Old English Boethius. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 2 vols. Chapter 18. 1:280
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton