(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.]