There are two sentences in David Copperfield that I don't quite understand, with regards to their (possible) figurative meaning.

Chapter XIII:

[...] a muslin curtain partly undrawn in the middle, a large round green screen or fan fastened on to the window-sill, a small table, and a great chair, suggested to me that my aunt might be at that moment seated in awful state.

What does "to be seated in awful state" mean?

Chapter XXXVII:

[...] I would sit sometimes of a night, opposite my aunt, thinking how I had frightened Dora that time, and how I could best make my way with a guitar-case through the forest of difficulty, until I used to fancy that my head was turning quite grey.

What does David mean when he says that he imagines his head "turning quite gray"?


1 Answer 1


The phrase to sit in state originally referred to the king sitting on his throne and carrying out his official duties, and has been extended metaphorically to encompass a broad range of official and formal situations. I don't know why it's in the passive (i.e., seated rather than sitting), but Google Ngrams shows this isn't uncommon.

The word awful is an adjective that applies not just to state, but gives the narrator's opinion of the whole scene of his aunt sitting in state. The strictest grammarians might say that it shouldn't be able to do that because to sit in state is an idiom, and adjectives should only modify the word they're applied to, but here it does anyway. In any event, putting an adjective in front of state in the phrase to sit in state is extremely rare.

For turning grey, the explanation is much more straightforward. It is a common belief that worrying turns your hair grey.

  • I though that when he said "head" he literally meant the head and not the hair :) Oct 30, 2013 at 14:16
  • 1
    Should probably add that awful is used in the old sense of awesome, but +1 for the explanation. Oct 30, 2013 at 22:45

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