Will's word

5th December 2003 at 00:00
Awful (adjective) "exceedingly bad, terrible"

Since the 18th century, the meaning of "awful" has weakened to that of a negative intensifier; we say such things as: "You've been an awful time" and "I'm an awful duffer." As an adverb, especially in American English, it can even be positive, as in: "That dinner was awful good." In Shakespeare, it was used only in its original Anglo-Saxon sense of "awe-inspiring, worthy of respect". In Pericles, Gower describes Pericles as a "benign lord That will prove awful both in deed and word" (II.Chorus.4). This meaning is easy to spot when awful goes with words denoting power, such as sceptre, rule and bench (of justice). It is a little more distracting when we see it used with general words, as when one of the outlaws in The Two Gentlemen of Verona tells Valentine that they have been "Thrust from the company of awful men" (IV.i.46).

David Crystal is author, with Ben Crystal, of Shakespeare's Words, published by Penguin

Subscribe to get access to the content on this page.

If you are already a Tes/ Tes Scotland subscriber please log in with your username or email address to get full access to our back issues, CPD library and membership plus page.

Not a subscriber? Find out more about our subscription offers.
Subscribe now
Existing subscriber?
Enter subscription number


The guide by your side – ensuring you are always up to date with the latest in education.

Get Tes magazine online and delivered to your door. Stay up to date with the latest research, teacher innovation and insight, plus classroom tips and techniques with a Tes magazine subscription.
With a Tes magazine subscription you get exclusive access to our CPD library. Including our New Teachers’ special for NQTS, Ed Tech, How to Get a Job, Trip Planner, Ed Biz Special and all Tes back issues.

Subscribe now