I have used the word awesome a few times lately to describe something that I found terrific or impressive. This surprised me because my husband and I have a running eyeroll over the word that we consider today's most overused and least understood. Many of our young friends and colleagues of the Millennial generation use the word the way we baby boomers are prone to using cool. It is the default word for something that is impressive or pleasing.
The word's first meaning is "inspiring awe," referring to that overwhelming feeling of wonder, fear, reverence or admiration. When believers refer to an "awesome God," it is more likely to refer to their supreme being's power and boundless love for humankind. When I said that my friend has "awesome gray hair," I was using it in the current sense. I think my friend's hair is beautiful and impressive.
I've had -some words on my mind a few times lately. A writer used the word irksome in a piece that I read a few weeks ago, and one of my recent earworms was Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." These incidents led me to wonder about the suffix and where it comes from.
The suffix means "characterized by a (specified) thing, quality, state or action," according to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Random House's College Dictionary refers to the suffix as "unproductive," a linguistics term that refers to a morpheme (word particle) that has no meaning unless is it bound to another. (This led me to a Wikipedia article about cranberry morphemes. Read it when you have time.)
That label "unproductive morpheme" tells us something about the words such as awesome, irksome, lonesome, burdensome and tiresome. They sound old-fashioned in their original meanings.
I've always wondered whether lonesome and lonely mean the same thing. It seems to me that lonesome is a cowboy out on the prairie with no one but his horse and his cattle to keep him company. He isn't necessarily in a bad frame of mind, but he would probably welcome a human voice. Lonely is an urban dweller who lives in an apartment (maybe drab but maybe ornate or tasteful) and has nothing but a cat and a TV set or the Internet for company. He probably is depressed and yearning for human contact.
The adjectives tiresome, irksome and burdensome carry heavy connotations. A tiresome person is one who willfully wears out his welcome. An irksome person is just trying to get on everyone's last raw nerve. A burdensome task is one that seems to carry no reward for all its trouble.
In Fowler's Modern English Usage (the later edition by R.W. Burchfield), the entry for -some notes the many words that have fallen out of the language. "The general picture is of a suffix lying ready at hand to be clapped on to a virtually limitless class of adjectives or nouns, but failing to produce words of long standing except in a small number of cases."
P.S. The suffix -some has another use, illustrated by the words threesome and foursome, meaning a group of so many members.
This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.