Awe and Awesome

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Words, like human bodies, become enfeebled over time. Awe and awesome are two such words.

In the early Middle Ages, awe meant “immediate and active fear; terror, dread.” Because awe was frequently used to describe the fear inspired by the divine, it came to mean, “dread mingled with veneration.”

The adjective awesome was used to describe something that inspired a feeling of solemn and reverential wonder tinged with latent fear, the feeling that Ahab’s crew would have experienced as Moby Dick rose up out of the sea next to the Pequod, or that Moses thrilled to when the voice spoke from the burning bush.

In the 21st century, the adjective awesome is applied to just about anything:

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I Had Some Really Awesome Noodles Today

Clearly awesome has dwindled so far from its original meaning as to mean nothing at all.

Perhaps writers of such statements could pause and try to think of a word that still retains a distinctive meaning:

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Unlike the adjective awesome, the noun awe continues to mean something.

In the expression “to be in awe of,” awe means “respectful admiration”:

Cricketer in awe of cataract surgeons

We are all in awe of the dedication and commitment of our polio eradication colleagues around the world.

The expression “in awe” conveys the experience of an emotion felt at seeing something fearful or sublime in nature:

We watched in awe as the Aurora Borealis danced around us, all alone in the Icelandic Countryside.

Photographer Kenneth Watkins watched in awe from just 30 yards away [as two male lions fought for mating rights].

But the expression “in awe” is also dwindling into meaninglessness:

Travellers in awe of new airport…

[The store clerk] watched in awe as she stacked up an enormous armload of music. 

I watched in awe as my friend ate her first push popsicle ever.

Finally, there is the military coinage “shock and awe” in which awe retains the meaning of fear or dread:

shock and awe: a military doctrine based on the use of overwhelming power and spectacular displays of force.

Even this fearsome expression is being used in various non-military contexts with descending coherence:

If organized labor were to throw its money and numbers behind a “shock-and-awe” effort to organize fast food workers across the country, they would no doubt emerge immensely strengthened.

Greek workers resist ‘shock and awe’ austerity measures 

The Shock and Awe of Ikea’s Employee Spying Program

[Employees] meet personal needs by using inappropriate openness to “shock and awe” co-workers. 

What he has done to date has left everybody in shock and awe.

This video left me in shock and awe.

Kids use the Walkman for the first time and react with shock and awe. 

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4 thoughts on “Awe and Awesome”

  1. Another misuse that’s appearing more frequently is “awe” in lieu of “aw.” Facebook commenters are guilty of this: “Awe! What a sweet kitty!” No offense to the feline-lovers among us, but I’ve yet to meet a kitten that inspires fear and reverence.

    Furthermore, “aw” is still defined as an expression of sympathy or disappointment, though its vernacular use had changed.

  2. Surfer jargon that has caught on as in, an awesome wave – something that inspires fear and exhilaration at the same time. After 10+ years or so it probably will become as popular as “groovy,” still used but mostly in a facetious way of sounding hip or cool.

  3. How to Become More of an Awesome Person
    Of course there is a bigger problem here than the misuse of one word. But, if directed at people who are at present only part of an awesome person, it would be at least partially correct.

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