Why Are Awesome and Awful Opposites?

If you have ever watched one of Derren Brown’s psychological manipulation videos, one word may come to mind as you stare dumbfounded into the television screen: Awesome. But I personally don’t think ‘Awesome’ suffices. I think ‘awe-most’ is more appropriate. But why not just use the word ‘Awful’ instead? Oh, wait a minute… That completely changes the meaning!

The term ‘awful’ has been around for centuries, long before ‘awesome’ was conjured. Three hundred years ago, the term ‘awful’ had the same meaning as our present-day term ‘awesome.’ You can see this by reading literature written during colonial times, such as Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin or Journal by John Woolman. So what changed?

The semantics of words in the English language are just as susceptible to change as any other language component, so long as we continue to use the language, anyway. For example, consider the term ‘nice.’ In the 18th century, this meant foolish or stupid. Now it means pleasing and kind. In the 15th century, the term ‘brave’ meant cowardice, but now it means courageous. In the 13th century, the term ‘girl’ meant a young person of either sex, but now it means a female child. The list goes on and on.

So the next time you find yourself in awfully gay spirits whilst reading Shakespearean literature, consider researching the historical meanings of the words, lest you contrive an unduly haphazard interpretation. ;-)

Stay classy, fellow bloggers.