According to the OED, the word ‘awe’ originally meant fear, as in these two short lines from a Middle English romance penned by an anonymous author between 1250 and 1300 titled Arthour and Merlin: “Sum for gret ayghe and dout / To other Kinges flowen about.” The lines suggest a circumstance in which a terrified peasantry sought protection from kings. The emotion represented is strictly that of terror. There is no subtlety, no shades of meaning. Flaming arrows and Saxon swords made cultivating the intellect less of a priority than running for your life.
As the English language evolved during the middle ages and grew more elastic and malleable in its play and compass, the word ‘awe’ began to appear in reference to the Divine Being and indicated a mood of “dread mingled with veneration, reverential or respectful fear; the attitude of mind subdued to profound reverence in the presence of supreme authority, moral greatness or sublimity, or mysterious sacredness.” In later years it acquired a further nuanced meaning, a “feeling of solemn and reverential wonder, tinged with latent fear, inspired by what is terribly sublime and majestic in nature, e.g. thunder, a storm at sea,” as in this passage from Modern Painters by John Ruskin: “It is possible to conceive of terribleness, without being in a position obnoxious to the danger of it, and so without fear, and the feeling arising from this contemplation of dreadfulness, ourselves being in safety, as of a stormy sea from the shore, is properly called awe.”
And in this passage from his magical Celtic Twilight, William Butler Yeats brings the word ‘awe’ into a context of great charm and glamour:
A little north of the town of Sligo, on the southern side of Ben Bulben, some hundreds of feet above the plain, is a small white square in the limestone. No mortal has ever touched it with his hand, no sheep or goat has ever browsed grass beside it. There is no more inaccessible place upon the earth, and few more encircled by awe to the deep considering. It is the door to faery-land.
As far as its use is a noun or verb is concerned, ‘awe’ has not lost its original meaning. If I say, “the waterfall filled me with awe,” or as a verb, “I am awed by the beauty of the dawn,” my meaning is clear. Anyone fairly competent in their use of the English language will know the emotion I am conveying. It is an adjective that ‘awe’ becomes the woefully banal modifier ‘awesome,’ meaning ‘cool,’ ‘excellent,’ or (at its best) ‘outstanding.’
There is something to this. I find it telling that the downgrade of a word that once held such potent meaning is now used in reference to the very ordinary. Something good, something fine, something pleasurable, but certainly nothing sublime, transcendent, or otherworldly. It is a world apart from Ruskin’s “contemplation of dreadfulness” from a safe distance, or Yeats’s “door to faery-land.” The meaning has been sucked out of it. It’s a hollow shell of syllables, a mere matter-of-fact way of saying you really like something. “Awesome, dude.”
I see individual words as barometers of our social climate, galvanometers of our inner currents, our capacity for the sacred. There are words that continue to have a charge, such as ‘God’ or ‘death’ or ‘eternity,’ but ‘awesome’ has degenerated into something less than a gift shop souvenir of a time in human history when people still carried a sense of reverential awe and were not embarrassed by its expression.
English is a living language and a vibrant one at that. It’s to be expected that its words and grammar will continue to mutate and evolve. Some words diminish in resonance and meaning, others grow.
The word ‘weird’ once made reference to fate and supernatural powers. The word ‘gay’ once meant happy and joyful and had nothing whatever to do with anyone’s sexual orientation. I don’t know how everyone arrived at ‘gay’ as shorthand for homosexual, but it sounds right. I can’t say why, but it does. ‘Gay’ weirdly sounds right.
It’s surprising what changes a word or phrase might undergo in the general flow of a living language. Words reflect values, but they can also indicate the health or decay of a language. I could make a long list of words that would garner confused looks if not outright hostility if used in conversation at, say, a casual social gathering. Who uses words like ‘floriferous’ or ‘idiolect’ or ‘rinforzando’ that isn’t a botanist, linguist, or musical composer?
Anti-intellectual trends in American culture have a chilling effect on one’s use of the English language. Use enough big words at your local bar or tavern and you’ll be lucky to make it home without getting punched in the face. I would not, for instance, expound on the ontogenesis of reference at somebody’s wedding, or the local barber shop. Sometimes you just want to sit quietly at your table and resort to the same banalities until it’s time to go home. People want to hear about cars and real estate and a little juicy gossip; they do not want to hear about the variables and referential opacity in the vivification of propositional attitudes.
Unfortunately, our case is much more serious now than it was thirty or forty years ago. Public education in America is in disarray, the children tested into submission to corporate mindsets. They are not taught critical thinking. Though I do wonder if Shakespeare’s plays are taught as they were when I was in high school. Reading Shakespeare was revelatory for me at age fifteen, as was Edgar Allan Poe and Whitman and Aldous Huxley’s essays on psychedelic mushrooms. I cannot comment with any real authority on what is and what is not being taught in American high schools and colleges. But I can relate what I see on a daily basis, and what I read and hear about in the media. And what I hear and read about in the media tells me that language is going the way of music and art. If books and composition haven’t already been dropped from the curriculum, they’re as rare and vulnerable to attenuated interpretation as the King James Bible to the impoverishing literality of fundamentalist doctrine.
I had heard quite recently that a production of Romeo and Juliet had been filmed that did not use Shakespeare’s language. That did not surprise me; I don’t doubt for an instant that the same crowd preoccupied with Twitter and other diversions on their digital toys are the same people who want a story of passion and violence without the distraction of language to get in the way. They want a video game, not a body of soaring metaphors. Metaphors they have lost the capacity to understand. Consequently, it isn’t surprising that one now hears the adjective ‘awesome’ on an almost continual basis. What language do these people use when they view the early morning sun crest a horizon of mountains or ocean waves? A breathtaking waterfall such as Angel Falls in Venezuela or the golden and bittersweet light veiling Venice in the evening? Awesome, dude.