Sunday, 12 November 2017

It's awf'lly bad luck

It's awf'lly bad luck on Diana 

Her ponies have swallowed their bits

 She fished down their throats with a spanner 

And frightened them all into fits.

Sir John Betjeman

'Awful', 'frightful' and 'terrible' used 
to be emphatic, or in other words as what grammarians call gradable adverbs, were slang invented by British upper class young people (I was going to write youth but that conjured up an image of inner city gangs) in the 1870s. I know this from Trollope's deservedly forgotten novel Is He Popenjoy? Now it seems those words are going out of fashion, along with 'rather' and 'fairly'. If this professor is right. 

He thinks this may be because they sound middle or upper class. I wonder why it's undesirable to sound middle or upper class.

Saul Bellow disliked Romanians using British words like 'frightful' and I even taught one anti-American Romanian friend to say 'frightfully' in order to annoy Americans. But 'frightfully' is very old fashioned and upper class. It went out a long time ago.


  1. I live in a British outpost left over from the Empire (Victoria, British Columbia) and gradable adverbs are still the thing with the older generation. I call this place "Simla by-the-sea, tweeds, tea and Midsommer murders on Sunday. This will be the last homely place for the best of the English language in North America.

  2. I still hear people say frightfully, mostly women over seventy, but I prefer awfully and terribly. For the under-25s fucking has more or less taken over, except in job interviews, sermons, etc.

  3. I enjoyed Is He Popenjoy? Although I cannot remember whether he was or whether he was not. M.

  4. Believe it or not, in the fitness gym a few days ago, I heard the angry, grinding rap track they were playing on the speakers accuse some other rappers of being < awfully > something, I think slow or dull.

    I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't heard it in a growling black American accent several times in the "chorus".

    So as ever, I am hesitant to predict this or that expression is dying out.