I spent my honeymoon in 1970 on the banks of Loch Awe in Scotland. At the time I wondered whether its name had any relationship to “awe”, meaning “wonder, marvel”. It was only recently, when the word “awesome” became ubiquitous, that my mind went back to original meaning of this word.
As you may know, “awesome” is now used in virtually any situation to mean “the best, the greatest”, often when the thing being described is far from the greatest, far from the best. Whereas in Scotland, we might say “that’s not bad”, Americans (and many others) would say “awesome!!!”
Indeed, “awesome” seems to the word of choice in a world of permanent hyperbole. Nothing is ordinary any more!
It may interest you to know that “awesome” and awful” used to mean the opposite of what they mean today. Awful meant “full of awe” – therefore, wonderful, marvellous. Awesome, as the word suggests, meant “some awe” – therefore, not quite so wonderful.
I have no idea when the change occurred, but I can speculate why. I believe it is mainly because we live in a world of topsy-turvy values…where footballers get paid much more than nurses, and where people become overnight celebrities because they say something rude or stupid on Twitter or YouTube.
I had this cultural decline in mind when I organised and chaired a conference in Scotland in 2000 – entitled “Thinking Allowed”. The strapline was “Bring Back Thinking – All is Forgiven”. Of course, this was partly tongue in cheek, but the serious intent was to demonstrate that the quality and range of thinking has deteriorated markedly these last few decades.
A few years later, when I was living in New Mexico, I used to watch a programme called “Thinking Allowed” on Sunday mornings. As its host, Jeffrey Mishlove, pointed out, this was a play on words. He also pointed out that it was difficult to find people who could really think, and whose language reflected this. The fact that he was able to find a few was, of course, awesome!