Taking the Terror out of 'Terrific'

By Rob Kyff

February 26, 2020 3 min read

Q: Could you explain why "terrible" and "horrible" are synonyms but "terrific" and "horrific" are antonyms? — Richard Katz, Niantic, Connecticut

A: Glad to. All four words started out with the same general meaning: "inducing great fear or distress." Over the centuries, three of them — "terrible," "horrible" and "horrific" — have retained this original meaning.

And "terrific" did, too, until well into the 20th century. In 1929, for instance, Roger Babson warned American investors that a "terrific" stock market crash was coming. And, believe me, he didn't mean the crash would be a good thing.

Today, we still use "terrific" in this negative, terrifying sense, like when we speak of a "terrific explosion." But during the 20th century, "terrific" took on an additional, more positive meaning: "unusually fine, magnificent, splendid."

How did this happen?

Linguists think the progression from fearful to fantastic went something like this: Because "terrific" meant "creating great terror," it gradually came to mean "exciting, sensational, overwhelming."

Because of this, people started using "terrific" to describe POSITIVE events that were thrilling: "a terrific party," "a terrific performance." Using this negative term to describe something good seemed to intensify its positive traits, like when teenagers use "bad" and "sick" to mean "great!"

Similarly, "fantastic" and "incredible," two other adjectives that now mean "excellent," originally had the more negative meaning "not real, not believable."

This shift from a negative to positive meaning is called melioration. Other "meliorites" include "nice" (which once meant "foolish"), "shrewd" (once "dangerous") and "dogged" (once "vicious").

Of course, words can shift from positive to negative meanings as well. "Cunning" once meant "knowledgeable"; "obsequious" once meant "flexible"; and "villain" once meant "a villager," nefarious or not.

Similarly, when King James II described St. Paul's Cathedral as "awful, amusing and artificial," he was praising it, not trashing it. Back then, these words meant, respectively, "inspiring awe," "amazing" and "full of artifice."

And some words have come full circle. "Notoriety," for instance, which once meant simply "fame," later came to mean "disrepute." But recently, many people have been using "notoriety" in a positive sense, thus restoring its original meaning!

That's the kind of linguistic evolution that makes English, well, terrific!

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: LubosHouska at Pixabay

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