Can anyone help me with the etymology of the oxymoronic use of adverbs such as "awfully" and "terribly"?Hello! I´m writing an essay about oxymora. While "awfully" originates from "awe-ful" which...

Can anyone help me with the etymology of the oxymoronic use of adverbs such as "awfully" and "terribly"?

Hello! I´m writing an essay about oxymora. While "awfully" originates from "awe-ful" which meant "awe-inspiring" (OED) I'm having a harder time with "terribly." I'm trying to form a link between them to establish how this type of oxymora came to life and why. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Expert Answers
booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

You have quite a task before you. Tracing the etymology of a word is often only possible by those who have done in-depth research based upon the context in which it has been used in books from the past.

With this in mind, it is difficult to identify the precise way in which a word has "morphed" into something very different. Slang works this way in English today. The concept that "bad" really means "good" can probably be traced to street-lingo; it then becomes popularized by writers and singers (e.g. Michael Jackson's "I'm Bad"). Language is impossible to pin down because it is constantly changing, like a breathing entity.

I expect you know most of this in that you are investigating the etymologies of two words (both adverbs).

I found two etymologies for "terrible," which are listed as follows:

From French < Latin terribilis (“frightful”) < terrere (“to frighten”). Compare terror, deter.

The Online Etymology Dictionary provides this "history" for "terrible" (and I expect that "terribly" must come from the root "terrible" with -ly added to use the word as an adverb):

early 15c., "causing terror, frightful," from O.Fr. terrible (12c.), from L. terribilis "frightful," from terrere "fill with fear," from PIE base *tres- "to tremble" (cf. Skt. trasati "trembles," Avestan tarshta "feared, revered," Gk. treëin "to tremble," Lith. triseti "to tremble," O.C.S. treso "I shake," M.Ir. tarrach"timid"). Weakened sense of "very bad, awful" is first attested 1590s.

The same source provides the following information for "awful:"

c.1300, agheful, from aghe an earlier form of awe, + -ful. Replaced O.E. egefull. Weakened sense "exceedingly" is from 1818.

To achieve a better sense of what has transpired with these words, it is important to look at the date of origin.

For example, many names came into being in England with the construction of the Domesday Book; it was at this time that people were forced to choose last names: Smithson, for example, was the son of the blacksmith, but names like "Brown" or "White" could be selected as well.

When William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, French and Anglo-Saxon started to mix, so many of the words in the English language have their roots in the French. Changes to the English language arose because the working class could not communicate with the upperclass French: the language changed dramatically.

The etymology for "terrible" shows that in the 1590s, the meaning of the word was noticeably weakened.

The etymology for "awful" shows that in 1818, the meaning of the word was noticeably weakened, , though the word originated in the medieval period and remained relatively unchanged until that time. It might be beneficial to research what was occurring in 1818.

Some transitions will never be accounted for; many records and publications have been lost over the years.

I hope that some of the information here might be of help: I have no sense as to whether there is a clear answer for the relationship these two words share, or with most words: however I believe there is some sense reported in these sources that cite a specific time when "terribly" became more synonymous with the changed "awfully."

Sources: <>