The Evolution of Awesome

Isabel Lake

Use the word “awesome” in a sentence. What did you describe? Pizza? Bacon? Your best friend? If you used this word two thousand years ago, that pizza must have been truly spectacular to the point of fearsome. Back then, only God was esteemed to the point of “awesomeness.” The Bible describes God as awesome in multiple books, referring to, among other things, “[his] great and awesome name” (Psalm 99:3).

How did a word describing the astonishing power of God come to mean simply somewhat great?

“Awesome” made its first dictionary appearance in 1598. It meant someone feeling awe. Up until then, the word had been used repeatedly in the Bible in the traditional meaning. In 1611, King James of England rewrote the Bible, substituting “terrible” for “awesome”. In the next few hundred years, “terrible” grew to have a different meaning. By the early 1900’s, “terrible” acquired its present connotation of “extremely and shockingly or distressingly bad or serious,” and could no longer be used to describe God. Therefore, it was taken out of the Bible and “awesome” took its place back. By 1980, the word “awesome” also gained a new meaning. While mocking the West Coast surfer-dude attitude, the bestselling Official Preppy Handbook redefined the word to “terrific, great.” The new meaning stuck.

“Awesome” is just one example the continual dynamic status of our language. Words change daily. They grow, shrink, and evolve like living creatures. Some even go extinct. According Jeffery Henning (who wrote newsletters describing constructed languages), words change in three basic ways: generalization, specialization, and word shift.
Word generalization is a type of change where the meaning of a word is broadened. For example, “place” is a word that has been generalized. The original meaning of “place” was “street, courtyard” (like Park Place). Over time, this grew to mean “house” then “city” and now, simply “a general area”. Word specialization is a type of change where the meaning of a word is narrowed. For example, until the late 1500’s the word “girl” was used to describe any young person. Around that time, the word “boy” changed it’s meaning from “servant, commoner,” to “a young male,” and “girl” morphed into its modern meaning, “a young female.”

The third type of word change is shift. This encompasses complete redefinition of a word, and even sometimes flipping a definition around. One obvious case of word shift is “literally.” We all know what it means: “in an actual sense”. Now, think about the last time you said literally. Chances are, you didn’t use it that way. That is because today’s common usage of “literally” is almost completely opposite its original definition. Today, and even for the past few hundred years, we have been using “literally” to emphasize phrases that are usually entirely metaphorical. “I could literally eat a horse” is obviously not a true statement in the classic sense (can you figuratively eat a horse?), but it is widely accepted in today’s culture. This modern definition has even been added to the dictionary and was used in passages by Dickinson and Thoreau.

For right now, we have our language, but the language of tomorrow will be completely different. Maybe in the next two hundred years, “awesome” will mean “awful”. Maybe the slang we use today will become tomorrow’s Word Power. Perhaps, the age of computers will take over and we will all talk in three letter acronyms and chatspeak. We have the ability to mold language. Language has the ability to morph on us.