Meaning Shifts: Awful and Awesome

English is not quite as variable as Humpty Dumpty, who averred that words meant what he said they meant, no more and no less, but it does shift, reverse, and back-track when it comes to meanings.

I tend to get irritated when a perfectly useful term or phrase becomes taboo, or a euphemism that is just common enough that I can no longer utilize its services in my writing. DadRed steams when terms are watered down to the point of losing their meaning and power. I learned this when a not-too-bad 1980s youth choir anthem became a praise chorus. The core meaning of the music was lost, leaving a very different sense behind. “Our G-d is an awesome g-d…” Without the rest of the song, given now-popular slang uses, it means really cool, neat, superior to other deities. With the rest of the song, it means fearful and awe-inspiring, terrifying in the sense of Ruskin’s definition of sublime. Awe + some means “inspiring or containing the quality of awe.” So literally “awesome” means that the thing described causes awe or contains awe, the former being the more common sense of the word.

So something that was awesome meant that the thing in question—deity, storm, mountains, unusual individual, what have you—inspired awe. The art critic John Ruskin blended it into his “sense of the sublime,” something so overwhelmingly dramatic and beautiful and amazing that it caused awe, joy, and terror, often at the same time. This is the sense used in the King James Version of the Bible, and in The Revised Standard Version and a few others. That the Lord Most High is worthy of awe and is more powerful and terrifyingly strong and beautiful than we humans can understand.

But the word shifted meanings, and took on the sense of approval and praise. Then along came “Bill and Ted” talk, as I learned it, and “Awesome, dude!” became the new “cool!” And without the original listing of the powerful and scary attributes of the Lord, the song’s chorus carries more of that sense to the singer and listener. Enough so that I prefer not to sing it.*

Awful first meant “inspiring awe and dread.” Then in the 1600s, if not earlier, it took on a secondary sense, as an intensifier. Thus James II of England could call Christopher Wren’s rebuilt St. Paul’s Cathedral as awful and artificial and mean that it was an excellent, awe-inspiring work that showed the skill and artifice of the craftsmen. It was high praise. After 1900 or so, awful weakened. Now we use it for things that taste bad (an awful, bitter avocado souffle) or when a tree limb falls on our car during the night. Or someone’s taste in clothes, or an especially good-bad word joke.

Artificial is also now a less-than complementary word in daily use. thanks to the Romantics and their post-1960 cousins, things made with artifice are less desirable than things taken straight from the tree, vine, or stalk. “Natural grains,” “natural flavors,” “natural fibers,” and so on. Artificial suggests that the item has a faint less-than-good place of origin. Why else would plastic compounds made to look like tanned hides be called “vegan leather” instead of “plastic” or “artificial leather?”

I don’t think we can turn back the etymology clock, especially for slang, no matter how much a particular usage galls me. But it is good to know what a word used to mean, and how to use it properly when called for.

Do not get me started on sex vs. gender, however. The language historian and biologists in me have strong opinions. Very strong.

*Praise choruses in general rub my fur the wrong way. They are hypnotic and are meant to guide the emotions to a certain place. That makes me very, very uncomfortable. I know that they are excellent meditation tools for some people, and many modern Christians enjoy them and value their calming and unifying effects. I don’t.

27 thoughts on “Meaning Shifts: Awful and Awesome

  1. Was there a different version than the “when He rolls up His sleeve He ain’t just puttin’ on the Ritz/ there’s thunder in His footsteps and lightning in His fists/ the Lord wasn’t joking when He kicked them out of Eden, it wasn’t for no reason that He shed His blood/ His return is very close and so you better be believing that our God is an awesome God.” one?
    (With ‘our God is an awesome God’ every other line, and the chorus of ‘He reins from heaven above/with wisdom, power and love/ our God is an awesome God.)

    The version I’m familiar with was done by a late 80s/mid-90s Christian musician and was actually rather powerful, but it’s no belted-out Gloria, for sure.

    • That’s close to the one I remember. I recall more verses about power and creation. And no, it was not sung with the current, “close eyes, sing softly while swaying” approach to the chorus. My choir emphasized the “deity is a powerful, scary Dude” aspect of the song. (I sort of wonder if the people who borrow the chorus for a praise meditation have ever been caught in the middle of nowhere when a Great Plains thunderstorm is looming over them and there’s no place to hide. My guess would be no.)

      • And no, it was not sung with the current, “close eyes, sing softly while swaying” approach to the chorus

        *twitch* *twitch*

        I HATE it when they take something that you’re supposed to belt and make it all wispy.

        Our parish had a mini-rebellion today, they started out “The Lord of the Dance” in the durge setup, and by the end it was right proper:

  2. Do not get me started on sex vs. gender, however. The language historian and biologists in me have strong opinions. Very strong.

    There’s a difference between ‘language shift’ and ‘attempted language manipulation for cynical reasons.’

    • Right Newspeak is not a desirable result no matter what the SJW think. And the change in meaning of gender is Newspeak in no uncertain terms.

  3. > Why else would plastic compounds made to look like tanned hides be called “vegan leather” instead of “plastic” or “artificial leather?”

    After PETA stormed the Naugahyde factories, the hide of the wild nauga vanished from popular ken…

    • In days long past Naugahyde had a little cute blobby mascot. When my grandparents bought a lounge chair a Nauga stuffed creature (one really can’t call it an animal) came with it as a promotional item wangled by my Grandmother. It was destined to be mine until my younger whiney female cousin complained. It was considered unseemly (by my Grandfather) for the eldest male (albeit about 7) of the grandchildren to get it so it went to her. No I’m not bitter thank you :-).

  4. Another example is “Gentleman”.

    Originally it referred to a man of the “Gentry Class” in England (basically untitled nobility).

    But now appears to mean a man who “acts in a good way”.

    In one of the Lord Peter stories, a young servant refers to Lord Peter’s policeman friend as a “gentleman”.

    An older servant mildly corrects her by saying that he wasn’t a “gentleman” (ie member of the Gentry Class).

    Of course, it seems that the Left wants gentleman to lose any positive meaning. 😦

  5. Ah, yes. Changes in meaning and usage . . .

    I can’t help but be reminded of the “Not The Nine O’Clock News” version of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”. Macbeth and Banquo meet the three witches on the blasted heath.

    Chief Witch to Banquo: “Thou shalt not be king, but thou shall be royal.”

    Banquo: “Oh! I’m going to be Queen!”


  6. (Contemplates avocado souffle) Sorry, that just sounds wrong, and I once perpetrated peanut butter and jelly pan pizza. 🙂

    Agreed with Foxfier, too.

  7. TRX beat me to that line. Always a good thing to stand for the naugas! 🙂

    That ” Jesus is my boyfriend” style of praise music is due to 50 years of folk infestation. This permitted second-rate altos and tenors, and third-rate sopranos, to think they were The Star at church, because they were The Lead Singer. Totally forgot about Who is the Focus in the sanctuary. None of them have experienced the awesome power of the Almighty, in the physical or spiritual world, or their delivery would be much different. Elijah knew that the tempest, earthquake, and fire were but heralds for He who speaks in a still, small voice. Better to sing as if we need to hide our faces on short notice.

    Er, before getting swatted, my point was that many of the less capable higher voice parts forgot what a Cantor or choir does, in leading the congregation either in harmony singing or in antiphonal song and response for liturgy. Usually the male part is told to stay on pitch or to sing tenor twelve yards farther away from the mic. And I hear a carpapult being winched back …

    • Believe me, I know where I stand in church music: Well away from the mic, any mic. The odd timbre in my voice gets picked up by electronic amplifiers very, very well. Too well.

      • As far as church music goes, I know what I like and don’t expect me to sing. 😀

      • People standing back from the mic, represent!

        Although for me, it’s a volume control issue, as well as a lack of understanding the mic on any solid level. I trust that my voice is concert level loud at any volume, without amplification, and most people agree. (Although I think this is not always true anymore. Maybe I’m finally learning to throttle it back.)

  8. Wait, that chorus has verses? I never knew that..

    I have problems with a chorus our church does occasionally with God being the famous one.

    Even more problems with “Let There be Peace on Earth” (and that is before the changed the words from “with God as our father, brothers all are we” to “with God our creator, children all are we.”)

    And the time that our music director explained the words of a song with the repeated chorus of “He gives and takes away” as “God gives us grace, and takes away our sin” really stands out in my mind. (It is actually quoting Job.)

  9. And I’m probably alone I’m the theory that the current attempt to neuter God has the aim of making Him easier to control. It’ll fail, of course. He is not a tame Lion!

    • No, I agree with you. When they start trying to say that Jesus was not a man (because “he only looked male because of the patriarchy”) is when it’s time to flee rapidly, as opposed to backing away slowly and making polite excuses.

  10. Once more the move is afoot to ‘change’ the meaning of the words/songs/etc to ‘fit’ what the new generations want. Look at all the different ‘versions’ of the bible now… I grew up with the KJV, and even as a child was encouraged to read it. Today? Not so much…

  11. I learned, as you did, in English class that James II of England could call Christopher Wren’s rebuilt St. Paul’s Cathedral awful and artificial, and mean that it was an excellent, awe-inspiring work that showed the skill and artifice of the craftsmen.

    I learned it as “awful, artificial, and amusing” which at the time meant “pleasant, enjoyable to see.”

  12. Not a -Plains- thunderstorm, no. A few years back, before development sprang up on NJ 33 east of Hightstown, I got off the NJ Tpke there just as a thunder-deluge hit. The surrounding land is flat, with farm and pasture land (for NJ’s racetracks) beyond a wooded belt. The road is two lanes each way with a wide, grassy median. The lightning strikes came every two or three seconds, sometimes sooner. With the rain my headlights penetrated maybe 100 feet, and the road’s crown couldn’t handle the water, so I couldn’t reach 35 mph without hydroplaning. There was no place to go, and no easy turnaround–going back and hiding under the Turnpike overpass might have been a good idea–and there were massive, deafening, blinding lightning strikes only a couple hundred feet away off the road, probably in the wooded belts on either side.

    Does that come close?

    • I know exactly where you’re talking about, since I lived about five miles from where you’re talking about for nearly a decade. I’ve run into similar problems on NJ 33 and similarly-constructed state highways in heavy rain. Drainage can be terrible. In places there are curbs with infrequent sewer grates. Where there aren’t curbs, there isn’t necessarily anywhere for the water to go – the shoulder and the land beyond are at roughly the same level, and the median is often at the same level, as well. A few ditches would go a long ways. Where the state highways aren’t traversing such level terrain, the water drains a bit better, except the low spots often don’t have enough drainage. Ugh. By and large, I’ve found the roads in Ohio are generally better-suited for dealing with deluges.

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