Difference Between Similar Terms and Objects

What is the difference between awesome and awful?

What is the difference between ‘awesome’ and ‘awful’?  While at first glance it may be noticed that these words are similar in spelling and sound, they generally are thought of as antonyms.  However some interesting information about these words shows that they have many and varied usages and really are closer in meaning than many English speakers realize.

The most common definition of ‘awful’ is an adjective for something very bad or unpleasant. For example:  I have had an awful day and need to rest. Related to that is the additional meaning of causing feelings of fear and wonder, or awe.  For example:  The wounded animal made the most awful sound.  While some word origin experts feel that ‘awful’ is not merely the combination of ‘awe’ and ‘full’ to mean ‘full of awe’, the use of ‘awful’ as an intensifier to mean exceedingly great or inspiring awe is common.  So in a sense, ‘awful’ can in fact mean ‘full of awe’.  For example:  That view has an awful majesty to it.  Related to this usage is the adverb form of ‘awful’, meaning ‘extremely’ or ‘very’.  For example:  She is awful rich.  As an adverb, ‘awfully’ is also an acceptable form.  For example:  That place is awfully far away.

The most common dictionary definition of the word ‘awesome’ is as an adjective to describe something that causes feelings of fear and wonder or awe.  For example:  The sun setting over the ocean is an awesome view.  This definition makes the word seem like it means the same as ‘awful’, but in fact it can mean the opposite.  ‘Awesome’ takes on the shade of meaning something extremely good, instead of bad.  For example:  I had an awesome day because I got a raise at work.  Because of this, ‘awesome’ and ‘awful’ are generally considered antonyms rather than synonyms, even though they have the same meaning of inspiring awe.  The difference lies in the positive or negative feeling behind the awe that the word is expressing.  It is also interesting to note that in recent years, ‘awesome’ has taken on a slang meaning as well.  It is used as a positive expressive exclamation to agree or show something is good.  For example:  Awesome!  I love that song, play it again.

So while both ‘awful’ and ‘awesome’ are adjectives used to describe something full of wonder, inspiring awe or respect, the usage of these words is usually quite different.  ‘Awful’ is used to convey a more negative sense of fear or terror, or even to just describe something unpleasant or bad that happened.  ‘Awesome’ on the other hand, is used more positively to express something terrific, good or wonderful.

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