Here’s something you may or may not know about me. I try to avoid using the word, ‘awesome.’ It’s not that I don’t use it, because I certainly do, but the way I used it changed when my art history professor laid it out for me one day in class.
But first...do you know what awesome means?
The Oxford dictionary’s informal definition, which you are probably more familiar with says this:
Extremely good; excellent.
Whereas the formal definition relays this:
Extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear.
Our modern and informal use of the word awesome only really came into use in the 60s and as the decades passed, the word has become less and less reverent and powerful as a word. Instead, we use the word ‘awesome’ to describe anything as above normal. Nowadays we take it even farther by attaching suffixes into ‘awesomeness’,
‘awesomest’ and further to ‘awesome sauce.’
The formal definition has been around since the late 1500s (possibly earlier), but we know that it has also been used in the bible. So what does that mean? When did the switch happen? When did we take it out of the text from the authors of the bible and start using them outside of the Bible?
An early transition happens from the Bible and to the Oxford Dictionary where it shifts from “someone inspiring awe” to “someone feeling awe.” A later use was during the sublime movement, a movement in which artists, writers, philosophers, and others, all turned towards nature and romantic (not the I-like-you-you-like-me kind of romantic) means. Something you might not know about big movements and eras that happen in history is the evolution of language and the need for new vocabulary. What was used in one time can’t be used in the next or maybe it just isn’t enough of a depth into it. This was no different during the sublime. Writers were looking for a new vocabulary to properly explore and express what they were experiencing. During this time, many people were well-learnt in the classics and the Bible(a shame we aren’t quite the same now), and so many applied their knowledge to their studies and works. The only way they could explain their reverent, almost transcendent, experiences was to refer back to context of awe that was previously only used in the Bible – towards God.
My professor was describing some middle age paintings and blew me away with just a little bit of knowledge. He offhandedly told us that we use the word awesome completely out of context language nowadays. The original use was in reverence to God, which shifted into an experience, and finally became a synonym for the word ‘excellent.’
How do you use the word? Did you eat ‘awesome’ Phở last week? Did you have a transcendental experience because you saw an ‘awesome’ waterfall? I’m not saying they can’t be awesome, but think about it.
Break the word down into ‘awe’ and ‘-some’.
Current – an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like:
Archaic – power to inspire fear or reverence.
Obsoletefear or dread.
And ‘-some’ is the suffix we attach to refer to the root word. So ‘awesome’ is to say something characterized by an overwhelming feeling of reverence, produced by that which is grand.
I can go on and on about the history of the word awesome, but I’ll cut it short – did your Phở make you reflect on the incredibly overwhelming might of God or did it just taste really good?