An awful lot of words

(Or a lot of awful words.)

While I was writing a recent post, I started thinking about the following words (and there are more similar):

awe (n) – awe (v) – awesome / awful (adj)
dread – dread (v) – ?dreadsome / dreadful (adj)
fear (n) – fear (v) – fearsome / fearful / afraid (adj)
fright (n) – fright / frighten (v) – ?frightsome / frightful / frightening / frightened (adj)
terror (n) – terrify (v) – terrible / terrifying / terrified / terrific (adj)

The questions which arise are ‘Who does what to whom?’/‘Who feels that way?’ and ‘Is this a good thing or a bad thing?’. Awesome is good, but awful is now almost always bad. Originally, we were full of awe, but there are references to God being awful. The most common uses of awful now are in the noun phrases an awful lot and an awful thing. An awful lot and an awful thing aren’t full of awe, and probably we aren’t, either. 

This is even more so when these words are used as adverbs:

It was awesome/awful of you to do that v It was awesomely/awfully kind of you to do that.
It was dreadful of you to do that v It was dreadfully kind of you to do that. 
It was fearful of you to do that v It was fearfully kind of you to do that. 
It was frightful/frightening of you to do that v It was frightfully/frighteningly kind of you to do that. 
It was terrible/terrifying/terrific of you to do that v It was terribly/terrifyingly/terrifically kind of you to do that. 

This process is called semantic bleaching, or “the reduction of a word’s intensity”, which is really very common, as Merriam-Webster explains.

(By the way, dreadsome and frightsome are in dictionaries, but are obviously very rare. If I was writing a historical fantasy novel, I would have a character nick-named Dreadsome.)

(I seem to remember a cartoon in which a primary school teacher says to a student something like “There are two words I will not tolerate in this classroom. One is cool and the other is groovy.” The student replies “Cool! What are they?” I can’t find that, but there is definitely one of a father saying to two children “There are some words I will not tolerate in this house – and ‘awesome’ is one of them”. There’s nothing wrong with awesome – it’s just overused.) [Edit: it may have been swell and lousy – see the comments below.]


13 thoughts on “An awful lot of words

  1. I saw that joke a long time ago (obviously) where the two words the teacher forbade were “swell” and “lousy.” That works a little better because “cool” is a perfectly acceptable word in a physics or home economics class.

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  2. So I guess whoever submitted that joke to the magazine where I read it must have lifted it from that I Love Lucy episode (which I’d never seen before). Interesting how they extend the gag for almost a whole minute, though “Who’s On First” is probably the ultimate example of how much material you can get out of a simple-minded play on words.

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    • It’s just possible that the joke was in circulation and both the scriptwriter(s) and cartoonist picked it up separately, but my first guess would be that the cartoonist was inspired by the tv show.
      Television wasn’t a large part of my childhood (either we didn’t have one or our parents didn’t let us watch much), but I recognise most references or allusions as a result of later reading and some watching.


  3. In the sense of your example, would the “s” in “lousy” be voiceless, as in “louse”? Even if it wasn’t originally so, I could see someone pronouncing it that way to affirm that particular usage (like the way one tends to pronounce “err” with the “e” of “error” rather than the correct “e” of “er…uh…”).

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    • To me, ‘infested by lice’ would have /s/. I assume that pronunciation changed first (because intervocalic voicing is very common) and the meaning changed second.
      I’m not sure of your err-example (or ur-example). To me, error has the DRESS vowel and err has the NURSE vowel (and both are non-rhotic), and I would never change the pronunciation, except possibly when speaking to someone with a rhotic accent. I remember a student in Korea not understanding my ‘actor’ and I posted here about ‘soccer’:


      • The internet also found JB Preistley quoted as saying ‘I know only two words of American slang, ‘swell’ and ‘lousy’. I think ‘swell’ is lousy, but ‘lousy’ is swell’ and Vicki Baum quoted as ‘I’ve been in New York only a few days and I have learned only two words of your language: one is Swell, and the other is Lousy … ‘It’s swell to be with you and excuse, please, my lousy English!’ and also ‘What I like about Hollywood is that one can get along by knowing two words of English – SWELL and LOUSY’. dates lousy to 1350, presumably in the literal sense, without giving a date for the figurative sense. Swell as a verb dates from before 900 and gives 1786 for the noun (a socially prominent/fashionably dressed person) and 1810 for ‘a swell (stylish) person’, 1897 for ‘good, excellent’ and 1930 for the AmEng interjection.


      • I went back to read your “what-is-socka” post. Is there really such a thing as “standard Australian pronunciation”? And who determines it? L’Academie Australienne?

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  4. The only instances I know of of “err” are in the phrase “To err is human” (sometimes accompanied by “to forgive divine”), and “err on the side of…”. Almost everyone I’ve heard utter the phrase uses the DRESS vowel.

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    • I was going to use ‘err on the side of caution’ as an example. gives err with both the NURSE and DRESS vowels. I’m as surprised as you in the opposite direction. I have only ever heard err with the NURSE vowel.
      Not surprisingly, Google Ngrams shows that err in all its forms is way less common than error(s). I know that error has a defined meaning in baseball. Do people say ‘Smith erred at the bottom of the ninth’?


  5. Pingback: Cold and snow | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

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