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
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'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'.
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".
- 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".