Lost in Translation: Awesome

August 30, 2017

Lost in Translation: Awesome

One of my favorite words is “awesome.”  This is because the prefix of this word “awe” first meant “terror.”  The root word in its original form has one meaning – “pain” (Greek achos) which translated into “terror, dread” (old English ege, eige, aege) When this translated into the Middle English spelling, “awe,” it still meant “terror, dread.”

Around the 1600s, “awe” began to mean “reverence” as well.

So during the majority of Elizabethan Literature, the word “awesome” meant “inspiring terror, dread, or reverence.”

In the turn of the 1900s, the additional definition of “amazement” was added to the root word “awe” thus creating a secondary definition for “awesome” that meant “inspiring amazement.”

Today, we generally think of the secondary modern definition, “excellent, exciting, remarkable,” when we hear “awesome.”

Our primary dictionary definition says “a feeling of reverence, admiration, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, or the like.” This is the most popular written meaning today, but as with many other words, the spoken secondary meaning is overtaking the written primary.

Most modern dictionaries list a “dated” or “archaic” secondary definition for “Awesome” that reads “causing awe or terror, inspiring wonder.” Some list an “obsolete” definition as “the power to inspire fear.”

When you read “the river is awesome” and the writing dates before 1900, it would have meant “the river is terrible, inspiring fear, demanding respect.”  This gives more weight than our current modern-definition thought of “the river, amazing.”

This word morphed from “pain, dread” (as in, “I’m scared to death of this power!”) to “excitement, amazement” (as in, “that is so beautiful, wonderful!”); “awe” has lost its dread.  The undercurrent of danger and respect has been washed out.

Just a little bit about our dynamic language of English.

Thanks for reading!

Type at you next time…

~Nancy Tart