If someone gave us a choice between having an awful meal or an awesome one, we probably wouldn’t hesitate in making our decision. 300 years ago, however, we may have taken our time. While the difference between the two in modern-day English is immediately evident, things were not so clear-cut in the past. The root word for both awesome and awful is awe, which is now generally considered to be a positive condition, but was until relatively recently more flexible. Awe was a concept much considered by the Gothic and Romantic writers of the late 18th and 19th century. It was defined as a feeling or reverence, admiration or fear, or a combination of the above in the face of the sublime: that which is so elevated beyond the ordinary, so transcendent, that the only natural response is awe.
While the sense of fear in awe has been mostly lost in its modern incarnation, the modern words derived from this older meaning of awe still reveal to us its past richness. Looked at objectively, the word awful should mean awe-ful, full of awe, and therefore mean the same as awesome. Yet 200 years of linguistic drift has seen these two words take two different paths away from their original shared position of meaning. And one must not forget about awfully: it ought to seem bizarre that something can be awfully good, or someone can be awfully kind, but we get used to such eccentricities in English quite quickly.
The Gothic-Romantic period is quite a fascinating one for those interested in the relationships between words, and how meanings drift. Beyond awe, the concept which most preoccupied its key writers was terror. 200 years ago, terror was a term equally rich as (and very similar in meanings to) awe, and specifically distinct from horror.
Ann Radcliffe, (The Mysteries of Udolpho , The Italian ), one of the most popular authors of her day, characterised terror as a feeling of dread and anticipation in the face of the sublime, or some obscured horror, which “expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life”. Horror, on the other hand, “freezes and nearly annihilates them” due to its direct and unambiguous presentation of atrocity.
Here again we see the previous richness of the term terror, and the variety in meaning of the modern words which are derived from it testify to that. Terrific, terrifying and terrible have each forged quite different paths of significance away from their common point of origin. And terribly, when used as an intensifying adverb before a positive adjective, might seem just as counter-intuitive as awfully. For the modern aficionado of horror however, the linguistic complexity of terror may not be so surprising, and they might acknowledge the same ambiguous mixture of dread and pleasure in terror that Radcliffe identified. When one watches Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) and sees the negative space of a large window behind the heroine which we know will be filled by the terrifying shape of Michael Myers, don’t we feel simultaneous pleasure and fear in anticipating his arrival? We want him to show up but at the same time know how scared we’ll be when he does. I don’t know what Ann Radcliffe would have made of the film, but I think she’d agree it’s a terribly good example of her definition of terror.
Someone with a keen interest in English, and aware of the complexity of its history and makeup, would not be surprised at how words can drift away from their anchor, or still retain elements of their former ambiguity. What really intrigues me though, is how words like terrific and terrible, awesome and awful, have not only developed very different meanings, but find themselves at opposite poles on spectrums of meaning.
I don’t think that’s a coincidence. It’s usually easy to distinguish something that’s not so great from something that’s fairly good. Yet there often doesn’t seem to be such a distance between the terrific and the terrible. Think of classic examples of “so bad that they’re good” films such as Plan 9 from Outer Space (Ed Wood, 1959) or The Room (Tommy Wiseau, 2003). Their deficiencies in terms of the basics of what qualify as good cinema are apparent, yet they’re also both much-loved and extremely (re)watchable films. But this is not in spite of their flaws. There are no hidden nuggets of great dialogue, or insightful commentaries on the human condition to outweigh these films’ obvious failings. Instead, what make them so fascinating, so terrific, are those flaws themselves, as well as the opportunity to talk or tweet about them afterwards. Contradictory as that may seem, it seems to be self-evident. We can see this in other forms of art. If a DJ puts on a song that’s not so great in a nightclub, the dancefloor will be empty. But if he puts on a famously cheesy one, the dancefloor will fill in moments. I, and others, have often derided Dan Brown for what’s seen as his clichéd writing, overuse of cliffhangers and awful dialogue. And yet I’ve read a few of his books and found them almost impossible to put down. I may once even have stayed up till about 7am to get to the end of the ever-escalating series of climaxes of Angels & Demons (2000). With my English graduate and teacher hats on, I tell myself that his books are objectively bad. But I’ve also enjoyed them. Like the fine line between genius and madness, there seems to be an equally thin one between the best and the worst art.
So when we think of adjectives to describe quality, maybe we shouldn’t think simply of a straight line with terrific and awesome at one end, and terrible and awful at the other. Maybe we should imagine something more circular, where we reach a point far beyond both good and bad where the line starts to join with itself, and terrible and terrific join together in whatever intangible greatness they share.