How did the English language come to this?

The play was awful.

Is the complete opposite of

The play was awesome.

But if you break it down to awe followed by ful or some, it doesn't make sense at all.
Can someone shed a light on this? Is there a rule to this, or is it one of those things you need to just memorize?

  • 3
    The answer is quickly gotten from google search and has to do "awe" historically having a meaning closer to "fear" and "dread", but I'm a bit too lazy to write it up properly. Incidentally, this reminds me of "priceless" vs. "worthless". Commented Dec 14, 2010 at 22:49
  • 1
    Neither bearing an outsourced opinion nor a linguist of any definition, @MitchSchwartz, but seems to me that "priceless" deals with the cost of a thing, i.e. something that must be paid in order to have the thing. Even though that thing has no cost, it definitely has worth. Price and worth are surely not the same thing? One is commodity value and the other is personal value (at least if used without additional context?). Question compares dissimilar suffixes with similar meaning and same base, you compare same suffixes and meaning with different base. What is the reminder? [citationneeded] ;) Commented Dec 14, 2014 at 9:01
  • @MitchSchwartz The irony of your comment is that StackOverflow most often ends up at the top of those Google results soon after the question is asked. In fact, that is exactly how I arrived at this page.
    – Dan
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 13:21
  • I have the same confusion about meaning>meaningful, wonder>wonderful, fear>fearful, and dread>dreadful. It seems like there are some deriver forms that oppose the rule and logic.
    – Cornelius
    Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 19:54

3 Answers 3


The words have been around hundreds and hundreds of years. While they were constructed by combining awe with -ful or -some, once they became lexical items as complete words, their meaning was able to drift like any other lexical item — the fact that each word is composed of a stem and suffix doesn't stop this. (Also, bear in mind that -some, the suffix, doesn't mean "some of X", it means "having the quality of X". Think fearsome, loathsome, cumbersome. And -ful is basically the same as -some in its meaning, with all words.)

Originally, awful had the meaning of being awe-inspiring (including positive connotations), as well as "worthy of, or commanding, profound respect or reverential fear." It was not a far stretch to then use it also to mean "Causing dread; terrible, dreadful, appalling." The earliest records of these uses date back to at least 1000 AD. Between 1000 and 1800, the word evolved to the current meaning: "Frightful, very ugly, monstrous; and hence as a mere intensive deriving its sense from the context = Exceedingly bad, great, long, etc."

Awesome came around much later than awful. It is first recorded in 1598, after awful had been around hundreds of years. Perhaps the need for this word arose because awful had already taken on such a strong negative connotation by this time. So awesome stepped in to again have the meaning of "awe-inspiring", but without the strong negative connotations. Ultimately, in the mid-1900s, the word awesome went from awe-inspiring to its more common use today: "amazing, great, etc."

So, this is how the words ended up like this. Yes, you do have to memorize the words to some extent, because they have certain connotations and colloquial meanings that are extremely common. But, again, part of the problem is treating -some like some. None of the -some words have a connection to the current meaning of some.

(All of this data came from the OED.)

  • But now "awesome" is used so much it could just mean nice... Commented Dec 15, 2010 at 12:14
  • 4
    We do still say something is awfully good, which presumably heralds back to the older, less negative meaning.
    – Sam
    Commented Jun 19, 2011 at 0:44

The suffix -some indicates the characteristic of the root word. So, "awesome" would be "characterized by awe/awe-inspiring". The suffix -ful means "full of/having the qualities of". Really, both suffixes mean the same thing. The word "awful" is an exception, however, in current English. An archaic meaning of "awful", though, is "full of awe/inspiring awe, wonder or fear". Many of examples of this usage can be found in old literature. The word "awful" aptly described disasters and catastrophes, since they inspired fear and awe, even though they were calamitous. Gradually, that usage crept into modern colloquialism, eventually getting frequently applied to bad things in general.

  • 1
    Jasper, that's awfully nice of you to say :)
    – Jimi Oke
    Commented Dec 15, 2010 at 11:01
  • 1
    @Jasper @Jimi -- you guys are awful! jk =)
    – BeemerGuy
    Commented Dec 21, 2010 at 0:09
  • @BeemerGuy Awesome could be conceived as something with awe. Like a bike or person without the negative connotation.and intentional opposite meaning that awful inherited.
    – Muze
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 20:16

Cheerful and cheersome would mean the same thing. So did an illogical process make awful/awesome antonyms?

In old English, aue, eghe, ege, was "fear, terror, great reverence". From the Norse egi: fright.

It is surprising that by the 1600's, awesome was used to describe prayer and devotion, whereas in the 1700's it described doom and gloom.

Awesome is seldom used in books until the 1850's enter image description here

let's see some previous use:

  • 1630... His Pipe smoak'd out with aweful Grace

  • 1680... The Lord hath made aweful breaches upon

  • 1690... It requires the most aweful and reverential frame of our hearts

  • 1700 It makes the soul aweful in the discharge of duties of worship

  • 1714... by that Day the Apostle intends that Aweful Day, when Christ shall come in flaming Firey to take Vengeance It renders the soul aweful and solemn in the presence of god

  • 1760... A battle is still a more aweful subject

  • 1780... 'but struck with aweful dread * Were hush'd as death

  • 1788... visible through the mist, which served to aggravate the gloom of this aweful place

in the 1700's aweful described earthquakes, battles, disasters. Perhaps the 1600's writers had forgotten the original frightful meaning? perhaps a change of pronunciation elicited more gloom in the 17th century?

Given the words "woesome" and "woeful". Everyday use would put a positive spin on woesome compared to woeful, because of the moderate nature of the suffixe "some", compared to the excessive "full".

There may also be elements of onomatopoeia, with the "S" and "osam" being preferred over "F" and "oful".

It may have previously been pronounced "ireful" and "hourful". The modern English prefix is so brief that most people don't notice that the two words are related, so the sense can diverge more easily than "cheerful" and "cheersome", which are easier to place semantically.

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