The phrase “awfully well” is fairly common, but it strikes me as an oxymoron. Is it?

closed as off-topic by AmE speaker, Edwin Ashworth, Xanne, Davo, MetaEd Oct 31 '17 at 16:10

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 1
    You should look in a dictionary before asking here. – GEdgar Oct 27 '17 at 20:35
  • 1
    Welcome to ELU, we're awfully pleased to see you. – Nigel J Oct 27 '17 at 20:51
  • No. It's a British usage and a bit slangy. It's not surprising if an American English speaker hasn't encountered it. – Greg Lee Oct 27 '17 at 20:56
  • 2
    @GregLee - The term is quite well known in the US. – Hot Licks Oct 27 '17 at 21:11
  • 2
    @Greg Lee I remember the Popeye scene: Popeye ... 'Gorsh, you're awful pretty!' // Olive Oyl ... 'Oooh, you're pretty awful yourself!' – Edwin Ashworth Oct 27 '17 at 22:11

'Awful' has a variety of meanings.

The meanings are diverse and the phrase itself is used sometimes sarcastically so it is difficult to classify the saying into one particular pigeon hole.

If I say to someone 'you don't look well, you look just like your passport photo, you look awful' then it is definitely not a compliment. But I can also say 'my, you look awfully well'.

The NGram indicates that its usage has declined severely since the 1920s. In some ways, the modern use of 'awesome' has taken over from 'awful'. The Ngram of awesome shows the opposite usage to 'awfully well'.

Definition :

1 :extremely disagreeable or objectionable awful food awful behavior an awful experience 2 informal :exceedingly great —used as an intensive an awful lot of money 3 :inspiring awe … the presence of Nature in all her awful loveliness. —George Eliot 4 :filled with awe: such as a :deeply respectful or reverential b obsolete :afraid, terrified

Use of awful as an adverb and an adjective :

Many grammarians take issue with the senses of awful and awfully that do not convey the etymological connection with awe. However, senses 1 and 2 of the adjective were used in speech and casual writing by the late 18th century.

⟨ it is an awful while since you have heard from me —John Keats (letter) ⟩

⟨ there was an awful crowd —Sir Walter Scott (letter) ⟩

⟨ this is an awful thing to say to oil painters —William Blake ⟩

Adverbial use of awful as an intensifier began to appear in print in the early 19th century, as did the senses of awfully corresponding to senses 1 and 2 of the adjective. Both adverbs remain in widespread use.

⟨ a sad state of affairs and awful tough on art —H. L. Mencken ⟩

⟨ the awfully rich young American —Henry James ⟩

⟨ decided to play it so awfully safe —A. M. Schlesinger born 1917 ⟩

All quotes from Merriam Webster


Awfully is being used in accordance with OED sense 3. (senses 1 and 2, are actually opposites, both deriving from a communication of "awe", but the first meaning "in a dreadful, terrible way", the second "commanding reverence, and sublimely majestical".)

But sense 3 is quite different - a simple intensifier, used in polite society, in Britain, and perhaps elsewhere, to mean "very" or "especially". It tends to be associated with excessively polite, and well-to-do people, and can be used as a way of satirising such - "they are an awfully awfully nice family".

  1. slang. [Compare Greek δεινῶς awfully, exceedingly.] As simple intensive: very, exceedingly, extremely; (also) very badly.>

1816 J. Pickering Vocab. 42 A perverse, ill-natured child, that disobeys his parents, would be said to behave awfully.*

[1830 T. P. Thompson in Westm. Rev. Jan. 255 He will have made an awfully bad choice if he comes to be sentenced to be hanged.]

1859 J. Lang Wanderings in India 154 In the way of money-making..he is awfully clever.

1878 W. Black Green Pastures ii. 15 You'll be awfully glad to get rid of me.

1885 N.E.D. at Awfully Mod. It was awfully jolly!

  • I do not think the 1816 example belongs to this sense 3, and is here in error. It belongs with sense 1, in my view.

I don't believe it fits the definition of an oxymoron which rhetorical figure conveys opposites in the same phrase to achieve emphasis, e.g "a living death".

  • Great explanation of awful as an intensifier! I agree with your assessment of "awfully good" not being an oxymoron, except in the sense of wordplay, which might actually explain the attractiveness of that particular combination. – DukeZhou Oct 27 '17 at 21:37
  • The basic definition of "awe" is an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime. "Awful", being a simple contraction of "awe full", carries the same possibility of being either dreadful or wonderful. There's nothing particularly "two faced" about the term -- it's simply used to express both extremes. – Hot Licks Oct 27 '17 at 22:10
  • 1
    @Hot Licks I'd say that you're well into the etymological fallacy there. Awful has by no means the same distribution as awesome. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 27 '17 at 22:31
  • @EdwinAshworth - The two words have gone in opposite directions, true. And so, as you say, the "distribution" of meanings (if you were to count them up somehow using Ngram or wherever) has diverged. But both words still carry both meanings, and have from the beginning. – Hot Licks Oct 27 '17 at 23:13
  • 'The basic definition' ... 'aweful. being a simple contraction ...' is disingenuous. Relevant is the most common and hence the default sense. And 'awful' and 'awfully [used before an adjective]' do not have the same default sense (intercategorially adjusted). – Edwin Ashworth Oct 28 '17 at 0:06

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.