Sunday, January 16, 2011

god awful is an odd phrase

I used the phrase god awful in a comment at Language Log and it occurs to me that it's an odd little creature. From the OED*:

Pronunciation:  /ˌgɒdˈɔːfʊl/
Forms:  Also God awful, Godawful.(Show More)
Etymology:  < god n. + awful adj.

slang (orig. U.S.).

  Terrible; extremely unpleasant. (In quot. 1878 the sense is ‘impressively large’.)

1878    J. H. Beadle Western Wilds xxxvii. 611   Put thirty acres‥into wheat, and went to work with a hurrah in 1874 to make a God-awful crop.
1897    C. M. Flandrau Harvard Episodes 88   Ellis is such a God awful fool.
1930    W. S. Maugham Breadwinner ii. 124   Your affairs are in a god-awful mess.
1946    ‘S. Russell’ To Bed with Grand Music i. 14   Listen to the most godawful programmes on the radio.
1958    R. Graves in Times Lit. Suppl. 15 Aug. p. x/4   The credible and vivid story that any context (red-brick, yellow-brick, or otherwise God-awful) offers.
1959    P. McCutchan Storm South iv. 63,   I heard the most God-awful racket above my head.

The meaning is derived from using god as an intensifier like very. Fine, I get this analysis, it makes sense. But is god ever used in any other construction to intensifier a negative quality like awful?

This is a case where corpora are not terribly useful because the instances of god are so frequent, and so frequently NOT in this kind of construction, it's difficult to discover automatically. I could go all qualitative and just read a million phrases with god in them, but that would take a really long time and still have a low probability of success.

HT to the OED for making their site freely available this month! Use name/password trynwoed/trynewoed.


Mike B. said...

I think the assonance makes the construction irresistible even if it doesn't make much sense.

Alon said...

This is a case where corpora are not terribly useful because the instances of god are so frequent, and so frequently NOT in this kind of construction, it's difficult to discover automatically

But parsed corpora let you search for God + ADJ (BTW, why in Hell does Blogger restrict useful HTML markup such as "code" or "tt"?). I looked for "god [*j*]" in COCA, and found a few interesting results, although most are false positives. A more delicate search string might give better results.

Instances of "God" as an intensifier include:

* God fucking piss on a fucking stick! (from a 2000 novel)
* The point is, it was Oh God Early and I was not only up, but at work. (from a 2006 novel; not exactly the construction, but interesting nonetheless)

Looking around elsewhere I've noticed a few further cases (e.g., "You are right about Flank II sucking. Actually, it's god-terrible", or "My favorite character is Zatanna. She is my favorite character because she's god-powerful", although we can't be sure that the posters of those messages are native speakers).

Chris said...

Alon, yes, you're right, good catches. god-terrible seems like pretty good match.

Mike, good point. I wonder if there is dialectical difference in how people pronounce it though. I can imagine the Buffalo a disrupting the assonance.

s said...

At a very rudimentary level, it seems like there are other instances of a noun acting as an adverb:

It was raining something fierce all weekend."

In both instances, the noun (clause) used as an adverb indicates some sort of intensification, and they also seem fairly informal.

Anonymous said...

Interesting no one's mentioned that "god" as an intensifier is short for "goddamned". The shortening and usage makes a lot more sense in that context.

Daniel said...

Maybe "godforsaken" was the example from which we mistakenly extrapolated the god-intensifier.

Jim Habegger said...

A possible origin that I see, that might not have left any traces in historical records, is something like "That's so, Oh my God! awful."

James said...

I don't associate god with awlful
The word should be satan awlful or devil awlful

Anonymous said...

From Cats Cradle, Vonnegut 1963
"Angela was a God-awfully insensitive woman, with no feeling for what smallness meant for Newt".

aanund said...

so the adjective ungodly would mark god as something positive, which then turns negative when negated

TheHinduTimes said...

I suspect the origin of this is simpler than one might expect. What can be more awful than genocide, the avocation of slavery, rape, subjugation and torture? It's quite a sensible combination of words to describe something that could be equivalent to the awfulness of the God of the old and even new testament. In the case of the NT, human sacrifice just for the sake of forgiving flaws that you imbued within your creation is pretty monstrous, especially when you create a hell to torture those who don't or cannot believe without good evidence. You might say it's god awful.

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