- Paul Anthony Jones
(suff.) an English suffix typically used to form adjectives from nouns
The –some at the end of awesome comes from an Old English suffix, –sum, that was used to form adjectives from nouns.
So something that literally inspires awe (noun) would be awesome (adjective). Someone fond of a quarrel would be quarrelsome. Something that is a burden would be burdensome. And handsome originally described something especially convenient or—quite literally—close at hand. Its etymological journey took it from meaning something useful to something seen as a welcome sight, and last of all, something or someone good-looking.
Among the many less well remembered words in this group are the likes of adventuresome (fond of adventure), shiversome (scary), murdersome (bloodthirsty), unthroughfaresome (impenetrable, or unable to be traversed), pranksome (fond of practical jokes) and even cuddlesome (deserving of an embrace). In some cases, however, it’s the root word to which the –some has been attached that has become obscured by history, not the final product.
Winsome, for instance, comes from a long-lost Old English word, wynn, that meant joy or delight. Its more modern equivalent, win, began to fall out of use in the sixteenth–seventeenth centuries, leaving winsome as something of an etymological relic today. The same goes for dolesome, meaning dreary or mournful, whose roots lie in the long-forgotten noun dole, meaning anguish or grief. And in toothsome, the connection is a more figurative one: toothsome means tasty, not ‘having many teeth’, and so it uses its root noun tooth metaphorically, to allude to a person’s appetite or liking. (We do precisely the same thing when we say someone has a sweet tooth.)
Although the main purpose of –some was to form adjectives, occasionally (and somewhat confusingly) it was added onto a word that was already an adjective. It was this that gave us words such as wearisome, wholesome, and fulsome. In cases like this, the etymological connection between the two parts is more meta. Something that is wearisome will make you feel weary. Something that is wholesome will essentially make you feel whole. And fulsome originally meant copious or plentiful before the convolutions of our language turned its meaning into a more negative one. By the 1500s, it was being used to mean nauseating, disgusting, or plentiful to the point of sickening excess, but the word has since come full circle so that when we talk of “fulsome praise” today, we tend to mean it in a positive way.
In some later words, the rules were bent even further and –some came to be attached to a verb, rather than a noun or an adjective. The likes of irksome, cumbersome, and meddlesome were all coined this way—as was gruesome, which comes from a Middle English verb, gruen, that meant to shudder with fear.
And the Old English verb bugen, meaning to bend or bow, likewise took the –sum ending to make an adjective, buhsum, that was used to describe someone who was humble or servilely obedient (in the sense that they would ‘bend’ to another person’s will or request). In time this original meaning slackened, and the word came to describe someone who was merely helpfully or friendlily compliant; then someone who was noticeably jolly and pleasant-natured; and lastly someone who was attractive or pleasingly curvaceous. The word we’ve ended up with today, ultimately, is buxom.