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Awe and Terror

On the decline of adjectives.

Of all the errors against which poor unsuspecting late modern subjects (including, ça va sans dire, you dear reader) are left unprotected, few are more pernicious than the crude superstitions that now govern the writing of English prose. Everyone “knows” that which should only be used before a non-restrictive clause, everyone except Shakespeare, Milton, Sir Thomas Browne, Dr. Johnson, Jane Austen, Macaulay, Henry Adams, Hugh Trevor-Roper, and I daresay even President Obama. Likewise, one is tempted to respond to schoolmarmish injunctions about not beginning sentences with co-ordinating conjunctions via a litany of biblical quotations. Of the ludicrous decree that one should never employ conjunctions after semicolons or omit a comma before a conjunction that separates two independent clauses, I shall not even speak; ditto the philistine overuse of commas after so-called “introductory phrases.”

Needless to say everything now being said about the so-called dangers of “artificial intelligence” has already been realized by word processing software, spell-check, and (I shudder at even typing these words) services such as The decline of English—a sad phenomenon of which I have a firmly established mental picture, one that resembles those “Ascent of Man” illustrations ubiquitous in high-school biology textbooks, only in reverse—from the language of Walter Pater and Lytton Strachey to (sorry, I do not want to offend any readers who possess M.F.A. degrees) is almost complete. In my children’s lifetimes one suspects that the language will be studied, if it is studied at all, after the manner of classics.

Which is why not in the hope of changing hearts or minds but for purely spiritual reasons—one might refer to what I am doing as “witness”—I should like to say something about the present state of “awful” and “terrible.” These two noble adjectives have been reduced to indifferent synonyms for (as the case may be) “execrable” or “unfortunate” or “a vast quantity,” banal connotations as far removed from their respective origins as one could imagine.

Let us take them in reverse order. Terror, properly speaking, is the province of the supernatural. The Holy Ghost inspires terror. Our Blessed Mother is the “terror of demons.” One is terrified of the dark precisely because terror is, as Stephen King of all people once put it, among the “finest” of our emotions, a dread of something which is by definition unknowable. The sin of Adam is thus a terrible sin but in the sense that the crimes of Macbeth are terrible, terrible in a way that those of, say, Sam Bankman-Fried are not.

Awe, too, is or rather should be transcendent. The Alpine Symphony is an awful piece of music. The New England Patriots from 2001 until 2019, and only intermittently ever since, have been an awful football team. My abilities as a tennis player are not awful but meager; those of Novak Djokovic are awful because they can be regarded only with a kind of cosmic wonder, one bound up in incomprehension and, of course, fear.

For those who insist that all of this is a bit prescriptionist, my question is why we should bother writing or saying anything. The number of commonplace adjectives that convey those qualities for which awful and terrible once did duty are painfully few. And it is difficult not to think that the conspicuous lack of awe and terror—and their replacement by an all-pervading sense of ennui—in modern life is not unrelated to the present linguistic definition. (Here I am reminded of an argument I once had about why Holy Ghost is a better English designation for the third person of the Blessed Trinity than “Holy Spirit”; my interlocutor confessed that instead of religious dread, the word “ghost” reminded him of paper decorations and factory-made cookies.)

There are many other candidates—horrible, for example—that I might have singled out here as evidence of the lack of precision which in turn gives rise to the impoverishment of contemporary English. But little is more unfortunate than what we lost when we stopped being able instinctively to understand what Sheridan Le Fanu was attempting to convey here (while, among other things, violating the fake that vs. which distinction):

There was an air of gravity and importance about the garb of the person, and something indescribably odd, I might say awful, in the perfect, stonelike stillness of the figure, that effectually checked the testy comment which had at once risen to the lips of the irritated artist.