The “Awesome” Trajectory

Regarding the subject of my last post, I was struck this passage from Alice Munro’s story, To Reach Japan:

They opened the compartment curtain to get more air, now that there was no danger of the child’s falling out.”Awesome to have a child,” Greg said. That was another word new at the time, or at least new to Greta.

I don’t believe Munro means that “Greta” has never heard “awesome” before, but rather that the trend toward this particular use of “awesome” was a recent development. The story takes place in the early 1960s (I think; Munro loves chronological ambiguity), and I must admit my surprise that someone would use “awesome” in the “cool/neat/groovy” sense that early*. Yet the Online Etymology Dictionary backs up Munro’s passage:

awesome (adj.) 1590s, “profoundly reverential,” from awe (n.) + -some (1). Meaning “inspiring awe” is from 1670s; weakened colloquial sense of “impressive, very good” is recorded by 1961 and was in vogue from after c.1980. Related: Awesomely; awesomeness.

“Awesome” has remained related to “greatness” in North American English, but developed an explicitly positive connotation within the past fifty years or so. As this Google NGram chart suggests, the popularity of this sense perhaps led to the word itself increasing in frequency during the post-war era:

So why did I not expect the word to appear in such a way in a story set fifty years ago? Probably because I associate “awesome” with the Reagan years, part of a broader semantic shift common at the time whereby words suggesting “extremity” of various kinds came to adopt positive meanings, as was also the case with  radical.

When you think about it, “awesome” is a rather unlikely everyday word, though, since it was once relatively obscure (Google NGram suggests the word “incorrigible” was significantly more common in the 1940s). It strikes me as a cousin to words like “excellent” and “brilliant,” but those words have always been far more commonplace:

Of course, “awesome” seems to have undergone a further shift since the 1980’s, in that it now joins “nice,” “cool,” and other words which indicate “halfhearted assent.” In other words, repeated use has rendered “awesome” an appropriate response to “I bought a new carton of milk at the grocery.” An odd fate for a word which once connoted fearsome power.

*Of course, one could read Greg’s comment as meaning “it’s a great responsibility to have a child,” but the character is supposed to be a young, artsy drifter, so that seems unlikely.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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3 Responses to The “Awesome” Trajectory

  1. bill says:

    “Awesome” is one thing, but how about “awful”? There’s a famous (probably apocryphal) story that, on seeing the newly built St. Paul’s Cathedral in the late 17th century, a court official pronounced it “awful and artificial”. This, of course, was meant to be highly complementary!

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