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.