Origins of Common Words - Awful

About the history, origins, and definitions of the common word awful.


Awful - While once it meant awe-inspiring and full of awe, the years have taken their toll on awful. Sometime in the 19th century, it came to mean distasteful; an 1818 dictionary reported, "In New England, many people would call a disagreeable medicine awful, an ugly woman an awful-looking woman...." At about the same time, awful and its adverbial counterpart, awfully, began to show up as intensives--words, like very, that add force or emphasis. But, again like very, people used them so often that they became virtually meaningless. Consequently, awful is now so far removed from its fearsome heritage that we must use words like awesome and awestruck to convey its former meaning.

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