Awe, long in English, Biblical meaning prevalent

Words about words

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

The word “awe” descends from the Old Norse word agi, which could have been aga in Old English, but was preceded by kindred forms via Old Teutonic. It first appeared in print in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, around the year 855. Initially it denoted an emotion of fear or dread. Thereafter it was used to refer to the divine being and acquired an aura of dread mixed with veneration, respectful fear, and reverence.

A century later, about the year 950, on the way to its modern form, the word was used in the Lindisfarne Gospels named for the abbey on the east coast of England that had been sacked by the Vikings in the year 793, the event reckoned to have triggered the Viking Age. But by far its most exultant entry into English came in 1611, with the publication of the King James Bible. The word awe is used three times in the Book of Psalms of the Old Testament:

Psalms 4:4: “Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah.”

Psalms 33:8 “Let all the earth fear the LORD. Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.”

Psalms 119:161: “Princes have persecuted me without a cause: but my heart standeth in awe of thy word.”

Two centuries later, in 1880, in A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain used the word awe in describing the unique lighting he had witnessed upon visiting Mont Blanc in France: “It was not our harsh, aggressive, realistic daylight; it seemed properer to an enchanted land—or to heaven. If a child had asked me what it was, I should have said, ‘Humble yourself, in this presence, it is the glory flowing from the hidden head of the Creator…’ I could have found out the cause of this awe-compelling miracle by inquiring, for it is not infrequent at Mont Blanc—but I did not wish to know. … We have lost as much as we gained by prying into the matter.”

This article originally appeared in the January 24, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.