Wednesday morning, the mother of a student said to a preschool child holding a toy truck: “That’s an awesome car! Awesome!” Moments later, another mother said to a father who recently returned from Europe: “That must have been an awesome trip!” He agreed: “It was awesome!” I apologize for the proliferating exclamation points, my least favorite punctuation, but recent usage has grafted it to the once-lovely word and trivialized it beyond recognition.
“Awesome” is the emptiest of current verbal vacuities, exchanged as a token of militant niceness among adults and children alike. Roughly translated it means: “I have no interest in you or what you are saying, and in fact I’m not even listening, but I want you to know I’m a sensitive person grateful for every word you utter.” It wasn’t always that way.
“Awe” arrived in English around 1200 from the Old Norse agi, “fright.” Throughout northern Europe, its roots and branches carry connotations of fear, terror, anguish, dread. “Awesome” entered English in the sense of “profoundly reverential” during Shakespeare’s working life, around 1600. He never deployed “awesome” but used “awe” twenty times, often retaining its religious resonance, as in Act I, Scene 1, of Coriolanus:
“What's the matter,
That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble senate, who,
Under the gods, keep you in awe, which else
Would feed on one another? What's their seeking?”
“Awe” appears three times in the King James Bible (translated 1604-1611), each in Psalms, as in Psalm 33:8: “Let all the earth fear the LORD: let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.” Melville loved the words. In Chapter 16 of Moby-Dick, “The Ship,” Ishmael senses the awesomeness of Captain Ahab even before meeting him:
“As I walked away, I was full of thoughtfulness; what had been incidentally revealed to me of Captain Ahab, filled me with a certain wild vagueness of painfulness concerning him. And somehow, at the time, I felt a sympathy and a sorrow for him, but for I don't know what, unless it was the cruel loss of his leg. And yet I also felt a strange awe of him; but that sort of awe, which I cannot at all describe, was not exactly awe; I do not know what it was. But I felt it; and it did not disincline me towards him; though I felt impatience at what seemed like mystery in him, so imperfectly as he was known to me then.”
Finally, in this catalog of correct usage, in Section XIV of The Orchards of Syon (2002), Geoffrey Hill writes:
“Awe is not peace, not one of the sacred
duties in mediation. Memory
Another good word lost, one we can hardly afford.