15

The following lines are found in Act I, Scene III of Julius Caesar:

What trash is Rome,
What rubbish and what offal, when it serves
For the base matter to illuminate
So vile a thing as Caesar!

To my ears, the pronounciation of "offal" sounds very much like that for "awful", and this made me wonder if this homology contributed to the modern definition of the word "awful".

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    It's probably better to use homophone rather than homonym -- it's less ambiguous (although homonym has a suitable definition, it's not the only one). – Chris H Apr 5 '17 at 8:49
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    Why was the etymonline post removed? – user66974 Apr 5 '17 at 9:51
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    Twain used "Offal Court" as the address of Tom Canty (the Pauper) in The Prince and the Pauper. I reckon he was going for the double entendre there. – B. Clay Shannon Apr 5 '17 at 17:29
  • no. Just a fun pseudo-connection. – Carl Witthoft Apr 5 '17 at 18:12
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    @ChrisH offal /ˈɒfəl/ and awful /ˈɔːfəl/ are neither homophones nor homonyms. – Nicholas Shanks Apr 6 '17 at 12:26
2

Just to add a bit to the other good answers...

Although the OED notes that the word awful means "Objectively: awe-inspiring"1, the earliest (c8852, approximately 500 years before the advent of offal into the language3) attestation for awful is actually in the sense

  1. Causing dread; terrible, dreadful, appalling.

This sense of the word has been in continuous use ever since. The earliest semi-positive sense of the word is not attested until c1000, and even then it is more in the sense of "scary" than "awesome":

  1. Worthy of, or commanding, profound respect or reverential fear.

It is not until the mid-17th century that we get the sense

  1. Solemnly impressive; sublimely majestic.

(And slightly earlier—by the end of the 16th century—we have the sense "filled with awe", definitions 5 & 6.)

This entry of the OED has not been fully updated, but I suspect that senses 3, 5, and 6 will be listed as now rare or obsolete when it is updated.

By the start of the 19th century, we have examples of the sense

  1. a. slang Frightful, very ugly, monstrous; and hence as a mere intensive deriving its sense from the context = Exceedingly bad, great, long, etc.

which may be the most common meaning nowadays, and which I take to be the subject of the question. However, this seems to be a fairly straightforward expansion of the original sense of the word, rather than inspired by the word offal. Compare terrible (inspiring terror), horrible (inspiring horror), dreadful (inspiring dread), and tremendous (inspiring trembling) and their adverbial forms, which acquired their colloquial and intensifying usages around 1500, 1500, 1700, and 1800, respectively without any homophonic influences.


1 "awful, adj." OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017.
2 At this time the word was actually ęgefull, an Old English cognate of the word which became our modern awful; however, the two root words (for awe)

were practically treated as dialectal variants of the same word, of which aye was still used in s.w. c1400, while awe was in the n.e. c1250. The sense-development is common to both. They are therefore here taken together; the examples being separated into groups α(from Old English ęge) and β(from Old Norse agi).
("awe, n.1.")

3 First attested ▸a1398. ("offal, n. and adj.")

37

Not really.

Awful and awesome have the same root: awe (dread).

Offal's root is "off." Literally.

(Dictionary.com)(Etymonline)

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    Yes the derivation is from awe.The meaning of Awful has changed over the centuries and used to mean full of awe as in full of wonder rather than dread. For example 17th century C16 refs praising the work of Wren on St Paul’s Cathedral. See e.g.: quoteinvestigator.com/2012/10/31/st-pauls-cathedral – MikeRoger Apr 5 '17 at 9:10
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    That dictionary definition of "offal" is nonsense. I gather that the USA has strange ideas about not eating the "icky-looking" parts of animals, but there's nothing "inedible" about brains, hearts, lungs, etc. In fact in my part of the UK, pig spinal chord was a local speciality, when people used to fatten and kill their own pigs rather than buying frozen meat. (The same basic recipe is still on sale, but emasculated for tourists to the point where it's hardly worth eating any more). – alephzero Apr 5 '17 at 10:12
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    @alephzero Apparently not just Americans; Shakespeare uses offal alongside rubbish to unfavorable characterize Caesar. – user1359 Apr 5 '17 at 13:24
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    @MikeRoger I love the idea of amusing, awful, and artificial being used as positive adjectives. I do myself occasionally use 'awful' to describe a particularly sublime experience, though obviously 'awesome' is less confusing to my company. – Izaak Sacrebleu Apr 5 '17 at 15:47
  • Of course Shakespeare and Wren are the only possible citations here; shows how small the elite of our language's history is. – Izaak Sacrebleu Apr 5 '17 at 15:48
20

No, because they're not homophones in the accents that matter (in addition to the etymology).

In some (especially American) accents, they are homophones, but from oxforddictionaries.com (which prefers British pronunciation:

The experts may correct me but see cot-caught merger. While this occurs in some British English (Scotland) and Irish English, it's at all not common in England. Whether it was in Shakespeare's time is a different question.

We can try to address this: Shakespeare's Accent: How Did The Bard Really Sound? is an article from NPR reporting on a British Library project. In the famous scene from Act II, scene II of Romeo and Juliet, Natalie Thomas as Juliet clearly pronounces the vowel in not in a way which could be distinguished from that in caught, naught etc. (unfortunately lacking in the clip -- the closest is probably nor).

  • Even as a native speaker of American English, there is certainly a difference in how I pronounce the initial syllable of these two words. It is subtle and might be munged if I were speaking especially quickly, but it is certainly there. – Cody Gray Apr 5 '17 at 12:54
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    @CodyGray this map of the merger in the US might be interesting then. From the same wikipedia article I linked in the answer. Any implication that all Americans merge the two sounds was unintentional – Chris H Apr 5 '17 at 15:39
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    Many Americans (like me) who don't merge cot and caught still merge offal and awful. Merriam-Webster gives two pronunciations for offal, so it can rhyme with either falafel or lawful. – Peter Shor Apr 5 '17 at 20:35
  • @PeterShor I suspected that a more specific merger existed, but I don't know if it has a name – Chris H Apr 5 '17 at 21:12
  • This should be the accepted answer. – Rand al'Thor Apr 6 '17 at 11:29
6

People have humorously connected the two words for at least 150 years:

See The Scrap Book and Magazine of American Literature, Volume 3 (1862):

Why is it unpleasant to have carrion near ?
Because it makes an offal smell.

Also in:

Harpers 28 December 1861

and a similar joke in More puniana (1875)

and

In the Sydney Punch 24 September 1864,

Titled "Truly Awful", there is a joke about a man sticking his nose in Mt. Vesuvius:

he would experience an offal smell

According to Humorous English (1961):

Many definitions are little more than the play between a word and its implied homonym, like the explanation of a hobo as a road's scholar, the movies as reel life, or carrion as something having an offal smell.

However, Samuel Johnson's 1768 dictionary says that Shakespeare uses "awful" (originating from awe + full) and "offal" (originating form off and fall) with almost opposite meanings:

AWFUL...2. Worshipful; invested with dignity Shakesp.

OFFAL...4. Any thing of no esteem Shakesp.

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    I'm astonished (not "surprised," as the other grammar pedants would jump on me) that this answer got the checkmark, seeing as it doesn't address the root question (pun intended). – Carl Witthoft Apr 5 '17 at 18:15
  • @CarlWitthoft I was only expecting an upvote or two, not a change of the accepted answer. I might feel obligated to add more to answer. – DavePhD Apr 5 '17 at 18:18
  • @DavePhD Accepted? Ah, fixed now. :) – Davo Apr 5 '17 at 18:20
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    Puns and wordplay lasting through a century is good evidence that the words aren't etymologically connected. If the words were connected, it would hardly be worth making a joke! Bad joke: Why are authors always correct? Because they're write handed! Worse joke: Why is Mr. Right always correct? Because he's right handed! – Patrick M Apr 5 '17 at 21:01
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    This is very country dependent. Where I live, the two words are so different that the joke at the top of this post would not work. – Greenstone Walker Apr 6 '17 at 3:13

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