Wendalyn Nichols wrote an awesome post yesterday for the Web site Visual Thesaurus. As an aside, the Copyediting newsletter editor mentioned the misuse of “awe,” as in “awe, cute” instead of “aw, cute.”
“Awe” comes from an Old English word “ege,” which meant “terror” or “dread.” It has largely retained that meaning, although recently it has been used in a more positive sense, first in relation to something impressive, and lately to describe anything we think is pretty good, such as a blog posting. It’s certainly overused these days, and it may be creeping into descriptions of babies and kittens. Some babies and kittens may inspire “fear or wonder” (Oxford American’s definition). but the word we’re probably looking for is “aw.”
That being said, most dictionaries I checked lack a positive sense for the word “aw.” Oxford American say “aw” first appeared in America in the 19th century and is “used to express mild protest, entreaty, commiseration, or disapproval.” None of those fit the way we use it with babies and kittens.
American Heritage includes “tenderness” in its definition. But that definition is absent in Oxford American, Webster’s New World, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, Macmillan, and the Oxford English Dictionary. So without an American Heritage Dictionary handy, we might be confused how to spell “aw, cute.”
The growing popularity of “awesome” probably influences the misspelling “awe, cute,” as well as “awe, cool” instead of “ah, cool.” (Sure, it’s spelled “ah, cool,” but it’s more often pronounced with a “w.”) American Heritage labels the use of “awesome” for “outstanding” as slang and Macmillan Dictionary notes it is “mainly used by young people.”
I would try to reserve “awe,” “awesome” and “awe-inspiring” for the truly impressive, both good and bad. We might have an easier time with “awe” if dictionaries took a new look at “aw.”