The Awful Fate of Words

“I listen to my words but they fall far below.”
Cat Stevens, The Wind

I’m looking for a word that may not exist.  “Beautiful” came easily but that word is generally used to describe something pulchritudinous and not necessarily splendid, marvelous or “pleasing to the senses or mind aesthetically.”  A beautiful face, in all ways symmetrical; a beautiful day with mild winds and temps and just the right ratio of clouds to sky.  There is something so transient about that word.  A thing of beauty is only a joy forever only in your mind.  Faces sag with wear and tear and droughts eventually turn lush gardens into barren wastelands. No, beautiful was not the word I was looking for.

In case you’re wondering, it was this moving piece of writing that has me on a quest for the perfect word.  How often we respond to each other in comments with words such as beautiful when we mean to say either delightful, glorious, or splendid.  Or when a piece rips in a chasm in our hearts – fearless, unflinching, heart-rendering or audacious.  Yes, I like that word audacious.  How dare the writer take us to a place we may not have wanted to visit but once there, how we marvel at the truth he or she has revealed.  What is the word for that?

“Beauty is truth and truth beauty,
That’s all ye know on earth.”
 John Keats, On a Grecian Urn

I found one word that I liked for its meaning:  of great value, not to be wasted.  Your work is precious to me.  I shall not waste it.   But precious is a word that has come to mean dainty and frail through, as one linguist put it, “absorbing the negative elements” of sarcastic usage.  Many words in the English language have met similar fates.  For example, naughty used to mean “people having naught,” in other words, poor people.  Nice originally meant silly, ignorant or foolish and pretty meant crafty or skillful. 

Tolkien’s character, Gollum, ruined the word precious forever.

This brought me back to where I began: wordless.  So I emailed friends of mine who are wordsmiths.  One of them wrote back:

There’s a fine tradition of pairing words incongruously to subvert ideas and emotions. From Aeschylus (“wisdom through the awful grace of God”) to Anne Sexton (“the awful rowing toward God”). And Emily Dickinson did this sort of thing so often it’s all but impossible to pick simply one or two good examples.”

What struck me in his response was how the word “awful” is used in concert with words such as “grace” or “beauty” until I googled the original meaning of “awful.”  Derived from the word “awe,” at one time it was synonymous with awesome and meant reverential and respectful.

An awful sky

What do you do when you can’t seem to find the right word?