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I have done some research, and I have a hypothesis, largely based on an answer to this same question on Quora. First, allow me to state my research. I looked up the definitions of these two words on Merriam Webster. The definitions are close if not synonymous.

  • wonderful

    1 : exciting wonder : marvelous, astonishing · a sight wonderful to behold
    2 : unusually good : admirable · did a wonderful job

  • wondrous

    : that is to be marveled at : extraordinary · a wondrous feat

The first definition of wonderful is quite similar to the definition of wondrous. So I don't think we can draw a distinction just using the first sense given for wonderful. The second sense, however, is a bit different. There is a difference between something that is "extremely good" and something that excites wonder. The latter is more poetic and emotional.

This Quora answer seems to touch on this. It claims that the two words are synonymous, but that wondrous is better reserved for poetic and emotional situations.

Hypothesis

This has led me to form a hypothesis, and I would like to know whether you think it correct. Has the word wonderful shed its first meaning and adopted the second? I am referring in particular to the meanings given within the Merriam-Webster definition.

Does wonderful have less to do with things that excite wonder, nowadays, in American English, and more to do with things that are extremely good? Does wondrous do a better job of capturing that lost meaning of wonderful, i.e. things that excite wonder?

Second hypothesis

If wonderful has indeed shed its first meaning of "exciting wonder", then I would guess this is because the word is simply too cliché. I would assume the same is true for words like amazing, awesome and awful. It would be more poignant to say that someone was in awe, or that something was awe-inspiring or mesmerizing, as these words are used less often.

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    I think your hypothesis may be correct; the devaluing of the commonly used 'wonderful' to its second meaning and the transfer of its primary meaning to the much less used, almost archaic 'wondrous'. – Nigel J Nov 10 '17 at 8:50
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    You should keep in mind that Merriam-Webster lists definitions in historical order, so that the original meaning is always first. This is not what we usually expect in a dictionary these days, but it is their style. The first meaning given is definitely not the primary one these days. This is explained at merriam-webster.com/help/explanatory-notes/dict-definitions. – Steven Littman Nov 10 '17 at 12:09
  • @Steven Well, I just learned something. Does that mean that, let's say, 90 percent of dictionaries list definitions by their popularity? – Zan700 Nov 10 '17 at 21:37
  • @Zan700 I haven't made a study of it, but I'd say that the vast majority of dictionaries order definitions by most to least common. – Steven Littman Nov 10 '17 at 21:38
  • @Steve So if a word is misused a lot, that erroneous meaning will become the first meaning, and thus reinforce the misuse. I do see this happening with some words. – Zan700 Nov 10 '17 at 21:47
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The subtle differences are explained in the definitions:

wondrous--that is to be marveled at; wonderful--marvelous, unusually good

"wondrous" focuses on the thing(s) in question; "wonderful" focuses on the speaker's emotional reaction.

So one may respond to a good suggestion with "that's wonderful", but not "that's wondrous."

Or: "That's a wonderful collection" to a friend, but (perhaps) not "That's a wondrous collection" to the same friend--though a writer may describe said collection as "a wondrous collection."

Sometimes we see the two used in similar sentences. For all practical purposes, the two mean exactly the same thing. Nonetheless, the subtlety is there:

"the wonderful world of animation" and "the wondrous world of animation"

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One word (wonderful) is an adjective, the other(wondrous) an adverb.

This is where KISS comes into play, most wording occurs due to one of two reasons, 1. Laziness, and 2. A desire to be “different” as in one generation specifically modifying linguistic meaning as a symbol of rebellion to another grouping of people’s ie: an individual desires to be “different” from which then becomes a “word” due to how popular or strong that diferrencing gap is desired.

KISS meaning Keep It Simple, Stupid.

  • Actually "wondrous" is used to good effect in E.B. White's novel Charlotte's Web: "Everybody knew that the Zuckermans had a wondrous pig." I don't think it has to do with rebellion. The two words simply have different meaning, and the acquisition of meaning is probably more often a long story than not. – ktm5124 Jan 1 '18 at 19:00
  • The KISS was more in reference to the identification of word difference, your description of the meaning was associated to its being an adverb versus being an adjective, ie: it’s (The word’s) original function. – R3ddawg Jan 1 '18 at 19:12
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    Well I think the word is an adjective. I would guess that the adverb should be "wondrously". – ktm5124 Jan 1 '18 at 19:36
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    "Wondrous" is both an adjective and an (archaic) adverb (as can be seen in the definition linked in the question, and most other dictionaries). The question is pretty clearly asking about the adjective. The rest of your answer is an opinion, of what I am not sure. – Laurel Jan 1 '18 at 19:39
  • Actually both are correct Laurel, I just joined the group and the reason was related to words that originated as acronyms, evolving into a discussion of words that evolved from acronyms to words, – R3ddawg Jan 1 '18 at 19:44

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