How Frankenstein Helped Transform The Word "Awful"

Words have complicated lives, with enough births, deaths, and transformations to make even the most complicated zombie story seem tame by comparison. Here's the story of how the classic terrifying tale of a dead creature brought to life also helped to give a word its own new lease on life.

After reading this piece on words that had shed their suggestive origins over the years, commenters began discussing other words that had taken divergent paths along their way to their current meanings. Among the discussions was this one of how "awful" had arrived to its current dark destination — with a little help from books like Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's classic, Frankenstein:

cloudkitt

I've long thought it was odd that awesome and awful were mainly used as opposites. When, really, awesome just sounds like a lesser form of awful.

mxyzptlk

There's a point in recent literary and philosophical history — the Romantic Age — where the words took on a different valence. "Awe" wasn't necessarily positive nor negative; it was a term to describe the sense of the sublime, which could be activated by the experience of overwhelming beauty or overwhelming terror. So a mountain could be sublime, a storm could be sublime, a beautiful vista or person, etc. William Wordsworth is probably the most famous writer in English who tried to tackle the question, and wrote this in Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey:

Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,

In which the burden of the mystery

In which the heavy and weary weight

Of all this unintelligible world,

Is lightened

One place to see where "awful" starts to seem more negative may come with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Shelley and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley were part of the next generation of writers to tackle the question of the sublime, and Mary Shelley uses both "sublime" and "awful" in her novel almost interchangeably:

But it was augmented and rendered sublime by the mighty Alps, whose white and shining pyramids and domes towered above all, as belonging to another earth, the habitations of another race of beings.

[...]

When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone.

The sight of the awful and majestic in nature had indeed always the effect of solemnizing my mind and causing me to forget the passing cares of life.

[...]

The poor victim, who on the morrow was to pass the awful boundary between life and death, felt not, as I did, such deep and bitter agony.

She wasn't the only person to ascribe a sense of the overwhelming with "awful," but with her work and others who linked it with the overwhelming power of nature, the word becomes more linked with feelings of terror, and then settles down into the negative connotation we have today.

Just awesome.