“Are you awesome?” That’s the question that Crunch, the gym chain, is using in its New Year campaign to attract new customers. Presumably we’re in slang-land here, and Crunch is asking if you’re fabulous or fantastic — not whether you’re inspiring awe or terror. (The idea seems to be to invite everyone to join the “club of awesomeness” …)
What if Crunch were asking “are you awful?” That might seem awfully odd to 21st-century English-speakers, for whom awesome is super, outstanding or excellent, whereas awful means just the opposite: nasty, bad or monstrous. But these virtual antonyms didn’t start out that way, and if Crunch had been around at the end of the 16th century it could have used the adjectives interchangeably in its advertising campaign — and would probably have ended up filling its gyms with Gods rather than mortals. At the root of both words is the old English word awe, a noun defined by the OED as “reverential fear or wonder”, and the adjectives in question were formed by adding a suffix — “-some” and “-ful” respectively. These suffixes serve to form adjectives that are full of, characterized by, or able or tending to the noun that they follow: hence beautiful means full of beauty; helpful, tending to help; burdensome, characterized by burden. And so, as logic dictated, both awesome and awful started out meaning the same thing: inspiring awe ….
So how, when and why did these synonyms part company and go their separate ways? The answer lies largely in the evolution of their core word, awe, which in its old English infancy was anchored in the context of God and man’s perception of deity, ie. a feeling of reverence and respect mixed with fear and even terror. Awful emerged at the beginning of the 14th century as the first adjective born of this worshipful state. It wasn’t until the very end of the 16th century that its younger sibling, awesome, made its first appearance, entering the vernacular at around the time that awe was just beginning to move into more secular contexts, inspired by what the OED describes as “what is terribly sublime and majestic in nature, e.g. thunder, a storm at sea”. So awful and awesome were synonymous for a couple of centuries, both describing phenomena — religious, natural or man-made — that inspired a sense of wonder, amazement, or reverence. When Queen Anne visited St. Paul’s Cathedral after it had been destroyed by the great fire of London and rebuilt by its original architect, Sir Christopher Wren, she famously told him that she found the new cathedral “awful, artificial and amusing”. Wren was suitably flattered by the compliment … (Back then, like awful, artificial and amusing also had different meanings.)
As the 18th century wore on, the meanings of awful and awesome began to shift in their emphasis, coming to represent the “ying and yang” respectively of awe in all its nuance and historical complexity. Awful tended increasingly to emphasize the element of fear and dread that religious awe inspired, rather than the wonder more associated with human and natural forces, feats and accomplishments. Awesome began to hijack the good, positive, wondrous qualities that awful eventually shed from its meaning. The OED still defines awesome as “inspiring awe; dreaded”, and gives “marvellous” and “excellent” as its slang definition. The definition of “unpleasant”, “horrible”, or “of poor quality” now assigned to awful is deemed colloquial, and only when the adjective is used poetically does it revert to its original sense of “inspiring awe”.