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I recently had an argument with one gentleman where he charged that he had heard the word terrible being used in a positive sense, as if something was good, or great. I had lived in the States for over 12 years where I was exposed to different strata of society from PhDs to lowly construction workers and warehouse serfs one of whom I was as well. I have heard people talk of all sorts of bad, brutal, sick, even ill, and generally awesome things, but I had never encountered the word terrible being used that way, even in this age of ironic hipsters.

In the question about the origins of the word, few people pointed out that in French the word terrible does have a positive colloquial meaning, which is confirmed by several dictionaries. Likewise, English dictionaries acknowledge different meanings for the sister word terrific pointing that the meaning of fantastic and the like is informal, and the meaning of inspiring terror is archaic. But no respectable dictionary I had checked does mention any sort of ambiguity in regards of terrible.

The only source known to me as yet that acknowledges the positive sense of terrible is Urban Dictionary, and even there it has been consistently downvoted. Yet, it still received some votes, so at least some people think there is a legitimacy to this claim. Is there anything to this at all? Is that some sort of new phenomenon, or is it utterly misguided? If it is indeed real, are there any examples of such usage in popular culture?

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You should elaborate more about that. Maybe it depends on the situation, for example we can say He is hell of a programmer, He is so good, his code is sick mate. We can say He knows terribly good jokes mate and ect. In the last example terrible makes good in stronger form - pretty standard for English language. –  speedyGonzales Feb 4 '13 at 7:44
    
@speedyGonzales, that is very different as terribly is an adverb, and in an informal sense (that is acknowledged by OED, for instance) it means very. Thus it is an amplifier, not qualifier. –  theUg Feb 4 '13 at 7:48
    
All I am saying is I work and understand better by example. For example your girlfriend is crying and you give her napkin and she says - You are terrible (like you are really good and I don't deserve you). In some of your resources it is said that terrible can mean above average. –  speedyGonzales Feb 4 '13 at 7:58
    
There are zero "positive" hits on COCA. Examples of the word being used in the sense of awe-inspiring or formidable appear to be either dated or idiomatic. One could argue that this sense is also pseudo-positive at best. –  coleopterist Feb 4 '13 at 8:18
    
@coleopterist, are you using corpus hosted by BYU? How do you search for “positives”? –  theUg Feb 4 '13 at 8:26
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6 Answers

The OED’s first definition is ‘causing or fit to cause terror; inspiring great fear or dread. Also: awe-inspiring, awesome’, but the only citation that might be thought to use ‘terrible’ in a positive sense is this from Swinburne ‘Superb instances of terrible beauty undeformed by horrible detail.’ Yeats uses the word in a similar way in this line (not in the OED) from ‘Easter 1916’: ‘A terrible beauty is born.’

The answer in brief is that terrible only rarely has anything other than a negative sense, and that if we use it in any other way we need to know what we’re doing, and, in particular, we need to be sure that our readers or listeners will understand how we’re using it.

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I wouldn't even say that Yeats' and Swinburne's use was positive, but rather the neutral sense, (with the negative sense evoked in Yeats' and arguably also in Swinburne's), held in tension with a positive noun. –  Jon Hanna Feb 4 '13 at 10:49
    
+1 "only rarely has anything other than a negative sense" –  MετάEd Feb 18 '13 at 17:23
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If the word terrible is being used much in a positive way, even as a slang term, it has not been noticed by the lexicographers. Up to now, the least negative sense of terrible is as an intensifier, as in

1853 KANE Grinnell Exp. xxxiv. (1856) 301 Even you, terrible worker as you are, could not study in the Arctic regions.¹

and even this example conjures up a sense of an overwhelming, possibly frightening, force of will. One may even be reminded of Mary Shelley’s monster, who has such terrible strength that he is able to sustain his life in the Arctic.

Barry England is careful in his answer not to make much of his Swinburne and Yeats citations

the only citation that might be thought to use ‘terrible’ in a positive sense is this from Swinburne ‘Superb instances of terrible beauty undeformed by horrible detail.’ Yeats uses the word in a similar way in this line … from ‘Easter 1916’: ‘A terrible beauty is born.’²

and that is just as well. These are both incontestably terrible in the usual sense, juxtaposed with beauty to create a contrast for rhetorical effect. Yeats’ “terrible beauty” juxtaposes the terrible execution of revolutionaries with the beauty (as he saw it) of their sacrifice on behalf of the Irish people.³ He could just as easily have written “dreadful beauty”. In the same way, Swinburne’s “terrible beauty” juxtaposes the beauty of certain dramatic poetry with its terrible subject, specifically that of Cyril Tourneur

which makes incision in the memory … the grandest verses of Marston or Chapman … have less of cautery in their stroke

and that of John Webster

in his handling of criminal and terrible matter.

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Here is an example of a usage that is closer to what you mean - sort of mock admiration

ngram - you are terrible

The Brooklyn Novels - Page 846 Daniel Fuchs, Jonathan Lethem - 1961 -

"You are terrible," she said, "simply terrible. Shurtee, I don't know vat I vill ever do vith you. How do you like the negligee?" He sucked in his breath. "Gorgeous!"

enter image description here


As an adverb, I have heard it often. Especially in older movies spoken by posh people...

For example: The new etiquette: the modern code of social behavior - Page 192

Just the other day I heard a lovely, but thoughtless, girl say of her dancing partner, "He's terribly clever." Since "terribly" is derived from "terror," one might have supposed that the young man was engaged in inventing machines of torture instead

ngram - terribly clever

enter image description here

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I already noted it in the different comment, that I am not interested in an adverb terribly used as the amplifier, equivalent to the word very. This is known usage, and reflected in the dictionaries. –  theUg Feb 4 '13 at 9:48
    
See update - I was not ready :) –  mplungjan Feb 4 '13 at 9:50
    
Yes, I think that can accurately be described as "mock terror". That only works, of course, because "terrible" means "engendering terror". It is not gaining a neutral sense, just being used in an ironic context. –  MετάEd Feb 18 '13 at 17:22
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It's use in neutral senses is rare enough these days. And I have never heard it used in a full positive sense.

I am though reminded of several times when a colleague has caused consternation among partners from other countries when they described something as "deadly"; a highly positive term in my city and a few other parts of the country, but not found as such elsewhere.

Conversely, once when a film was set here the PR people paid more attention to the local press than would be usual because they were particularly interested in the opinions of those who knew the film's setting. They were delighted when one newspaper described it as "brutal" and put that quote on the film's posters, because a gritty brutal atmosphere had been exactly what they intended. Had they though translated from slangy style the review was written in, into received English, the quote would have read "of embarrassingly poor quality". (Or into modern internet slang, "FAIL!").

So while I've never heard "terrible" in a fully positive sense, I am more than willing to believe that there may be a small demographic somewhere that uses it exactly like that.

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I believe that in some parts (of some translations) of the Bible, God is referred to as being "terrible" in a sense that is generally positive. In this case it would be very akin to "awesome".

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I don’t believe it to be positive. Biblical and theological texts forsooth refer to Christian god as “great and terrible” with frequency, but I do think the meaning is literal: “God is great, and should be revered, but he is also terrible, thus he should be feared”. –  theUg Feb 4 '13 at 7:45
    
@theUg Sure, but it's very different from how most folk use terrible, which is simply as a synonym for "extremely bad". I was thinking that this might be what the gentleman you talked to might have meant. Also, awesome used to be pretty directly synonymous with terrible, since awe meant terror or fright. –  starwed Feb 4 '13 at 8:15
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The idea that forms of יָרֵא should be translated “awesome” instead of “terrible” is a modern conceit. It is used throughout the OT with the sense of “terror”. The first use of it is Genesis 3:10: “I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I [was] naked; and I hid myself.” Remember, God is cast as a king; the idea that one should not be terrified in the presence of one’s king is a modern conceit also, possible only because the king no longer has real power. –  MετάEd Feb 18 '13 at 16:54
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The cognomen of the Russian Tsar Ivan Grozny is usually translated as "Ivan the Terrible" but it means something closer to "formidable", "awe-inspiring". The capital of Chechnya has the same name.

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My Social Studies teacher said she preferred to think of him as "Ivan the Awful". –  MετάEd Feb 18 '13 at 17:00
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