I’m not a huge stickler about English etymology, but it does fascinate me. Understanding the value of our words is much more surface-level than I think we often realize without knowing the roots of the words we say, even regardless of intention sometimes.
Among these roots, I would say the most interesting etymology of a word that I’ve seen is actually quite a simple word that we probably all know. In today’s English vernacular, though I admit I’ve not heard it as often as I used to (for potential reasons I will soon elaborate on), we tend to use this word in response to a retelling of something tragic that happened. We (more often) use this word to describe pungent smells and sensations. The word?
“Awful” is a fairly simple word. We associate it with tragedy, obscenity, and unpleasantness; but hardly had I ever considered the third definition above before learning the etymology of the word during my time in college. Given the two roots of the word taken individually, that definition makes so much more sense.
However, I do believe that the world has largely forgotten that healthy fear exists. Fear can sometimes be one of the greatest educators. Fear does not always send us into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn, nor should it. That, I believe, is why this “archaic” definition of the word awful is specified as something that elicits reverential fear. It’s the kind of fear that reminds us to pray, to worship, to trust and not to worry about our circumstances because there is a greater power presiding over said circumstances than we could ever fully grasp. That greater power being the Christian three-in-one God– Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
So here’s the list of things that were going through my mind at this point:
- How did the definition of awful do a full 180?
- Why is awe somehow considered bad?
- Do we consider God, who is perfectly good, to be awful by the root definition, or by the culturally adapted modern definition?
My mind froze at that last question. I know I’ve been convicted of a thought like that before. I know that for whenever I should start drifting or for any of you that may need that conviction, that question just needed to be written down.
There’s this imagery that Jeremiah uses that I believe to be so applicable to this question:
Thus says the Lord:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the Lord.
He is like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,Jeremiah 17:5-8 (ESV)
whose trust is the Lord.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
See, we use words today in such a way that doesn’t care for the roots. Sometimes that means pruning our vocabulary from cussing and other vulgar language. Sometimes that means fertilizing it by reading books that challenge and stretch our vocabulary (see this post for more on that). Sometimes that means watering it– by experiencing the rainfall, the river’s currents, or the ocean’s vast and wavy expanse in all its beauty, tumultuousness, justice, and mercy all at once.
As great as it may seem to experience any and all of these things when reading it off of some rando’s Jesus blog, it is not easy by any means. It’s not a graceful, effortless process by any means because we do not presently live in a world that makes following God easy. In fact, Jesus echoes the promise of trouble in doing right by His name in John 16:33 from Genesis 3:16-19. But there’s another verse that I use a lot as a swim coach:
For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.Hebrews 12:11 (ESV)
Pruning back a dahlia stem with a single flower and three buds is hard– you think waiting for the other three buds to bloom is more worth your while. But dahlias love to be pruned back pretty far. Cut back the dahlia [or really, cut the garbage out of the vocabulary you use and say things more kindly and intentionally] and instead of three more flowers before the plant says its done, you’ll end up with several more shoots with even more flowers and buds.
It seems awful by our modern standards, to cut back such a beautiful stem and the potential for it to flower more, but I’d argue that it’s archaically awful. It scares you for a moment whether or not you’ll get more stems from the one you just cut, but when those new stems grow and flower in a few weeks, there’s a sense of wonder– awe, even– to the beauty and resilience God gave even just this one plant.
There are different types of fertilizer for different types of plants, and I don’t know which type of fertilizer my dad used for the marigolds we grew this year to try and raise money for my church’s annual West Virginia Missions trip, but it worked. We only sold about half of the marigolds we seeded, and they were already much taller than expected and badly root-bound in their plastic flats. We planted what was left in a hurry since we had a cruise to Bermuda coming up, so in some cases we put up to ten in one big hole and hoped for the best. Currently, the average height of the marigolds is nearly 5’2″ (and I’m estimating based on my own height of about 5’4″). My dad claims he didn’t use a ton of fertilizer on these plants, but I guess a little bit goes a very long way.
But also with the marigolds while they were in the flats, there was the issue of water. There wasn’t a whole ton of space for dirt that would hold some moisture for the roots to soak up in those tiny black squares– because the roots took up so much room! A huge reason these flowers thrived more than your typical marigolds from Lowe’s or Home Depot was that the roots were so strong and mature and begging to reach for more water and nutrients when they were planted.
So much like I’ve asked you to consider the roots of this simple word “awful,” I want you to consider your own roots in this same sense. Are you parched for a drink from the Well? Are you desperate to dig your roots deeper into the place where it all comes from– your entire existence? Or are you the shrub? Will you waste your words? Fail to nurture them with the words you take in? Fail to put life-giving words into you and speak life-giving words over yourself and others?
Will you be awful in the modern sense?
Or will you be awful in the sense that God is because He lives, breathes, and shines in and through you?