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First, consider this sentence:

We lost the game because we played awfully.

Since "awful" means "very bad," it makes sense that "awfully" means "very badly."

Now, consider these two sentences:

1) Google is an awfully good search engine.

2) Bing is an awfully bad search engine.

In the second example, regardless of the adjective's connotation, "awfully" just acts as an intensifier - it simply means "very." Why do we use "awfully" this way? How did this form of the adverb come about?

I'd be awfully grateful if someone could enlighten me.

  • Note: this is not a duplicate of "Awfully" or "awful"? – njboot Jun 2 '14 at 5:02
  • Would you be terribly happy to have an answer? For whatever reason (I suspect poor vocabulary) these sort of constructions are not uncommon. Interesting side note: "very, extremely" places higher in googles definition list than "very badly, unpleasantly" for the word "terribly". It wouldn't be as much fun if words just meant what they mean. – Preston Jun 2 '14 at 5:07
  • it's awfully close to a duplicate! hah ha. njbvoot, just think of the word AWE. – Fattie Jun 2 '14 at 6:39
  • There are many words used as 'secondary modifiers of adjectives / adverbs'. 'Intensifiers' / 'downtoners' like very, extremely, quite are rarely forced into service elsewhere. However, many secondary modifiers (hopping mad, plumb loco, excruciatingly slowly, exorbitantly expensive, extensively rebuilt, finely attuned / divided / tuned, firmly established, fully justified, fundamentally flawed, gravely ill ...) have other roles (usually as adverbs) and/or have semantic content rather than merely being emphasisers / downtoners. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 2 '14 at 7:35
  • She was a wickedly beautiful and kind woman. The sinful pleasures she exudes in her kitchen is heavenly. – Blessed Geek Jun 2 '14 at 10:33
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Etymonline has a description of awfully here

and interestingly terribly here

I'd say awfully (and terribly) as it is used in the examples is not really the adverb of awful (or terrible) but is an intensifier that just happens to have the same spelling as the adverb.

He played awfully ... adverb, he played badly.

He played awfully badly ... intensifier, he played very badly.

He played awfully well ... intensifier, he played very well.

It might be purely coincidental but I think it's rather interesting to note that both the intensifier versions are around 1830, I couldn't find if frightfully, which is kinda similar, appeared at the same time.

  • I did look for dreadfully, and I did look dreadfully hard, but could find no reference regarding when it became an intensifier. – Frank Jun 2 '14 at 6:55
  • According to the OED, dreadfully was used as an intensifier back in the 17th century; 1697: This is dreadfully Astonishing! – Peter Shor Jul 9 '14 at 11:31
  • @PeterShor I found that frightfully dates (as an intensifier) from 1817. – Frank Jul 9 '14 at 11:44
  • 1
    Actually, dreadfully dates back to earlier in the 17th century. The OED's first citation (as an intensifier) is from Shakespeare, but it wasn't clear to me that it was an intensifier; however, I can find a number of uses in the mid-17th-century in Google books. – Peter Shor Jul 9 '14 at 11:47

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