Amusing, awful and artificial

There is an old story that when King James II of England saw Saint Paul’s Cathedral for the first time, he described it as “amusing, awful and artificial”. And meant that it was pleasing to look at, deserving of awe, and full of skillful artifice.

Having poked at this a bit, it looks like it’s apocryphal. In just a few minutes, I found it attributed to King Charles, King James, King William, and Queen Anne. But like all the best stories, there is a hint of truth in it. The grandson of Christopher Wren published the text of the warrant in a book of family memoirs in 1750.

We have particularly pitched upon one, as well because We found it very artificial, proper, and useful;

Quote Investigator has a good summary of the different variants of this quote over the years.

By 1938, the quote was being used to demonstrate how language changes over the years:

Some words change in meaning for no apparent reason. Such changes explain the fact that the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral was pleased when King James called it “amusing, awful, and artificial.” In those days amusing meant amazing, awful meant awe-inspiring, and artificial meant artistic.

So, almost certainly not true, but a great illustration of language changes nonetheless.


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