Have Yourself an Awful Little Christmas

Posted by Nick Niesen on November 1st, 2010

Words are very powerful. In fact, vocabulary has a remarkably high correlation with IQ scores. We use words to communicate our thoughts and feelings. Internally, we use words to think. For both reasons - thinking and communicating - having a strong vocabulary is valuable, and improving our vocabulary is a worthy self-improvement goal.

I'm not writing about a new, highly technical, or difficult word though. I'm writing about a word that most of us use everyday. And I'm writing to tell you we all under-use or misuse it.

The Holiday Season

I have always found it interesting to observe behaviors and listen to conversations about the Christmas season. If you listen to shoppers they'll talk about long lines and out of stock items. They'll talk about rude clerks and over-priced merchandise. They'll talk about getting things shipped on time, finding the gift for Uncle I-Never-Know-What-To-Get-Him, stale fruitcakes, and nasty weather. They'll talk about getting the wrapping and baking done, and the cards mailed. They'll anguish over whether the decorations on their house look ok. They'll grieve over the gift they bought before it was marked down 30%.

You've heard the tirades, the stories of woe. You may have even had them or told them yourself. Somewhere in that conversation you described someone or something as "awful". Others in the conversation shook their heads in agreement.

The Christmas Season

During the same month as those complaints and frustrations something else happens too. People smile more. People who rarely talk all year, whether neighbors or people whose offices are opposite ends of the hallway stop, or even make a point, to say "Merry Christmas". We even wish total strangers "Happy Holidays!" We listen to a whole different set of CDs and cassettes, and for a couple of weeks it seems the #1 Song in America is "Joy to the World", or "I'll be Home for Christmas", and not the latest hit from a band no one will remember in two years. People are kinder on the freeways, making room for someone in their lane. People are more giving and forgiving. Even in the midst of the hustle and bustle, the shopping and wrapping, people still have the Christmas spirit.

When I think of these circumstances, of these positive changes in behavior, I am literally filled with awe - that we seem to automatically move into a mental space of being more kind, gentle and loving, simply because we turn our calendars to December.

The Word

About a week ago, I wrote down the phrase "awful vs. awe-filled" on a piece of paper and began ruminating on that as my thesis for an essay. I was going to talk about how a couple of additional letters could change a word - and our perspective a great deal.

I decided to check my book of word origins, looking up "awful" and "awe" to see what I could learn. I learned nothing. So I went to the Dictionary, and here is what I learned:

Aw-ful adj. [see awe and full]

1. inspiring awe; highly impressive

2. causing fear; terrifying

3. dreadful; appalling

4. full of awe; reverential 5 very bad, ugly, unpleasant, etc. [an awful joke] *

I would bet that no one reading this uses the word awful with its number one definition. Definitions 2, 3 and 5 - well that's another story. Then I realized my Dictionary is old - with a 1988 copyright. Hmm? perhaps the meaning has changed, I thought. So I went to Dictionary.com, to get a more recent definition, and here is what I found:

Awful adj.

1. Extremely bad or unpleasant; terrible: had an awful day at the office.

2. Commanding awe: "this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath" (Herman Melville).

3. Filled with awe, especially:

a. Filled with or displaying great reverence.

b. Obsolete. Afraid.

4. Formidable in nature or extent: an awful burden; an awful risk.

The order of the definitions is different, but the message is the same. We are shortchanging the word awful! My earlier thesis about adding a few letters is out the window. Awful and awful, the same word with two very different meanings.
While awful isn't the only word that has conflicting meanings, it is a powerful example precisely because of those meanings and how different they are. The words we use are powerful. They define our state of mind and our perspective. They help us explain the world around us.

Not Just in December

I picked December to make my point because while we all want to get into the spirit of the season, some seem to get there quicker and stay in that spirit longer. The people who succeed at "getting the spirit" are those the most reverent about why we celebrate and the wonderful things that can happen during that time of year. In other words, people choosing to see the awe in the season.

While I described a whole set of positive and negative behaviors that occur during the holidays, I could do it for any month and any situation. I could point out what people find to be unpleasant - awful - about that time or situation, or I could describe what is highly impressive - awful - about that situation. So while I write this essay in December, the message should be clear all year. We can make a choice which definition of this word we want to use, and which definition we want to look for.

The Challenge

I see people who seem to search for things to complain about; looking for things to confirm how awful things are. We find what we look for. If I am looking for "very bad, unpleasant" things around me, I will find them. However, if I am looking for things that "inspire awe", I will find those awful things as well.

Which of those do I see during the holidays? Which do I seek the rest of the year? Recognizing that you have a choice in what you look for, which will you be looking for tomorrow?

I wish you an awful Christmas, and an awesome New Year.

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Nick Niesen

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Nick Niesen
Joined: April 29th, 2015
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