‘Awe’ spreads faster than dictionaries can keep up

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.”

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12 thoughts on “‘Awe’ spreads faster than dictionaries can keep up

  1. All I can say about the misuse of awe is aw, shucks.

    As it happens, I wrote about actual awe on my blog yesterday. I’m lobbying for more of it as a way to rekindle interest in science. Spoiler alert: darkness is involved. If you’re interested: http://bit.ly/c8NsFI

  2. Is it a sad thing to overuse superlatives? Awesome things are surely belittled by careless use of the word.

    But then perhaps words sometimes aren’t enough. Maybe we should think of our worlds as more awesome than we do simply to appreciate it. Maybe the young people have it right, and are awed by more. Whichever way, and regardless of how girly or soppy I may be, both babies and kittens are worth aw and awe. :-)

  3. It took my 15 minutes online to find the proper spelling of aw vs awe vs ah. No wonder people who do not spell as well as others can’t get it right. Thanks for the post!

  4. I just stumbled on this today after seeing for the 3rd time this week “awe, that’s so sweet.” GRRRRRRRR I would be more likely to use AW when writing something like, “Aw, shucks.” I’d be more likely to use “Aww, that’s so cute!” because it draws out the ending sound. Either way, THANK YOU for writing this. It might be time to re-run the column since “awe” is becoming even more common….

    • Thank you for the note, SuzyQ. This remains one of the top destinations on my blog because so many people land here after attempting to Google the correct spelling.

      Rereading this prompted me to look at Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which I don’t think I consulted two years ago. The Merriam-Webster Unabridged, which I did consult, says of “aw”: “used to express mild remonstrance, incredulity, or disgust.”

      The M-W Collegiate says: “used to express mild disappointment, gentle entreaty, or real or mock sympathy or sentiment.” So that’s a more helpful definition.

      The “aww” spelling might deserve a note of its own in the dictionary. A Google search for “aw, cute” prompts “Did you mean: ‘aww, cute’?” “Aw, cute” yields 386,000 Google hits, while “aww, cute” brings 948,000. Even “awww, cute” gets more hits than “aw, cute” with 575,000. Four Ws? 196,000.

      “Awe, cute” gets 66,700. “Ah, cute” gets 88,800.

      A side note: Your message also made me realize another word missing from my dictionaries is “grr,” which gets 18 million Google hits (including some that refer to the airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan).

      • Mark: In the past few days on different Web sites, I’ve seen “Aweeeeee” twice in comments about animals. The writers were trying to convey a long version of “aw”, such as your examples with the additional w’s. These people added not merely one, but many superfluous e’s. The result looks like it should be pronounced “A-weeeeee!” I also came across “Cuteeeeeee”, which I assume was intended to be “cute” with a lengthened “u” sound.

  5. The misuse of awe in place of the word “aw” is seriously annoying. It used among teeangers on especially on social networking sites likes Facebook and Twitter. I bet they think it’s cute to use it like that or they genuinely don’t know the actual spelling of the word. I’m a still a teenager myself, but I think they’re just stupid and lazy.

  6. Found this while seeking some kind of cathartic rant after seeing yet another “aweeeeee!” Frankly, the misspelling perplexes and irritates me less than this kind of utterly counterintuitive emphasis on a letter not emphasized in speech. Misspelling a word is innocent (I _get_ word confusion and mimicking pronunciation); “aweeee” is downright malevolent.

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