Friday, November 25, 2011

Did you know? The hidden story of words... 2 - Awful

And here is another word, "Awful":

Contemporary usage of “awful” only has its origins some 200 years ago, in a slang form of finding both concrete and conceptual objects or persons monstrous or bad; be it the state of a nation[1], or the dramatising of an adjective, as per the letters of Keats[2]. Colloquialised versions of the adverb followed shortly after, from Twain[3] to Paine[4]. This suggests a paradigm shift in the power of the word, perhaps introduced by the Victorian novel: a wilful playing down of the original meaning as something more natural, mundane and relevant to a speaker’s everyday life.

In the objective sense of the word, its etymology stems from the noun “awe” and, ironically, the striking of “a subjective emotion... fear... dread”[5]. Stemming in turn from the Old Norse, and Old Germanic, the suffix “-ful” makes its Anglo-Saxon appearance as slang, from the time of Alfred the Great[6] up through the 1800s. However, this use relates at first to vast “awefull armies”[7] and scenes that inspire dread, such as plagues[8], and massacres[9]: a sense of horror.
It is the words of Ælfric, circa 1000, which attempt to evoke instead a sense of God’s greatness[10], but other writers choose to subvert this as an earthly reverence in men only. It isn’t until Tudor England’s power play between Reformation and Counter-reformation that the inspiration of reverence and respect re-emerges. Even then, this subjective sense of being “filled with awe”[11] merely touches upon exaltations of God rather than settling there.

[1] Thomas Green Fessenden · Pills, poetical, political, and philosophical: prescribed for the purpose of purging the publick of piddling philosophers, of puny poetasters, of paltry politicians, and petty partisans · 1809.
[2] John Keats · Letters, 1814–1821 ed. H. E. Rollins 2 vols. 1958
[3] Mark Twain · The adventures of Tom Sawyer · Authorized ed., 1876. Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz
[4] Ralph Delahaye Paine · Comrades of the rolling ocean · 1923
[5] "awe, n.1". OED Online. September 2011. Oxford University Press. (accessed November 01, 2011).
[6] King Alfred · Boethius' De Consol. Philosophy · 888
[7] William Warner · Albions England: a continued historie · revised edition, 1602 (1 vol.). London: E. Bollifant for G. Potter
[8] Daniel Defoe · A journal of the plague year · 1st edition, 1722 (1 vol.). London: Printed for E. Nutt; J. Roberts; A. Dodd; and J. Graves
[9] John Richard Green · A short history of the English people · 1st edition, 1874 (1 vol.).
[10] Ælfric of Eynsham · Deut. · 1000
[11] "awful, adj.". OED Online. September 2011. Oxford University Press. (accessed November 01, 2011).

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