Although it's possible to be in awe of a baby, the word you usually want when you're cooing over cuteness is "aw."
Thad from Hawaii noted that I mentioned people saying “aw” about babies in last week’s podcast and wanted me to remind people that the kind of “aw” that is an interjection you say when something is cute is spelled A-W, and the type of grand awe you feel when you are overwhelmed by some massive natural wonder is spelled A-W-E.
I see people mix them up all the time too, Thad, so there you go: that’s your Quick and Dirty Tip for the week. The noise you make when confronted with cuteness is spelled A-W and the word for an emotion filled with veneration, dread, and wonder is spelled A-W-E.
I was a bit surprised to find that all the definitions of “awe” include that part about dread, and the root words all go back to word for “fear” and “fright” and “terror,” “anguish” and “pain.” People certainly use it for more mundane and less frightening things today. For example, I might say I am in awe when a singer nails that particularly difficult high note in the national anthem, but there wouldn’t be any sense that I am afraid of her.
Sometimes I talk about well-used words—when people use a word in a way that is especially referential to the word’s root—for example, when someone uses the word “canard” in combination with a story about a duck because the word “canard” comes from an Old French hoax about selling half a duck or when nuns talk about being maudlin because the word “maudlin” comes from the idea of Mary Magdalene being weepy. So it turns out the word “awe” would be particularly well used when you use it to describe something that is not only wondrous, but also fills you with fear or dread.
Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.”