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I want to know a word that describes the phenomenon of something being both beautiful and terrible at the same time, like a tsunami or the eye of a tornado.

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Of course, terrific would have worked a long time ago. OED's first definition is Causing terror, terrifying; terrible, frightful; stirring, awe-inspiring; sublime, although they do say that usage is Now rare. These days it's invariably used according to their definition 2a: amazing, impressive; excellent, exceedingly good, splendid. Much the same is happening to awesome these days, but most older speakers (and some younger ones) are still aware of the original sense and may occasionally use it. – FumbleFingers Feb 19 '14 at 2:48
How about magnificent desolation? (google it) – user13107 Feb 19 '14 at 3:35
"Awful", in it's literal meaning. – Hot Licks Jan 1 '15 at 20:26

10 Answers 10

It's a bit overused these days, obviously, but...

inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear; causing or inducing awe
Slang. very impressive

...seems to me to be exactly what OP is looking for.

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I agree with "terrific" more than "awesome" actually. And especially if we are mentioning about a natural disaster. Because terrific not only means terrible but also means extremely good and very BIG. It also means "awesome" itself :) – ermanen Feb 19 '14 at 5:17
+1 for an awesome answer. – Kris Feb 19 '14 at 7:27
@ermanen: The most awesome sight to the few people who would survive the eruption to tell the story is the volcanic lightning. I think that works as it stands, successfully incorporating both aspects of awe. But it seems to me you'd really need something like terrific but terrifying if you wanted both OP's senses based on that root. – FumbleFingers Feb 19 '14 at 13:05

Perhaps daunting

overwhelming, intimidatingly impressive

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The word awe-inspiring is closer to the old meaning of awesome, without the modern baggage.

From the Wiktionary page on awesome:

The oldest meaning of "awesome" is "something which inspires awe", but the word is also a common slang expression in English, originally from America. As the original meaning of awesome has become somewhat antiquated in general use, the term awe-inspiring is now generally used for the same meaning.

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WB Yeats in his poem Easter, 1916 deliberately didn't pick a single word; instead he used the phrase a terrible beauty for the effects of the Dublin rebellion.

So you could reuse that with a passing nod to Yeats. And anyone interested in Irish history will pick up on the classic reference.

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Easter, 1916

P.S. I know the OP asked for a single word but if Yeats was happy with two, perhaps that's worth considering.

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I wanted to suggest captivating, with its ties to the Latin word for prisoner. But as TFD and my experience indicate, this word may be too stilted toward the beauty of the disaster and not its fearsomeness. Another word that strikes a better balance is imposing, cited by MW as meaning

impressive in size, bearing, dignity, or grandeur

Lists of its synonyms commonly include reverential words like majestic or sovereign. But the use of imposing sometimes indicates a sense of foreboding as in this excerpt of Notre-Dame de Paris:

[Frollo] was an imposing and sombre personage, before whom the choir boys in alb and in jacket trembled...

A similar use in Moby Dick unveils another possible word:

[The] most imposing physiognomical view to be had of the Sperm Whale, is that of the full front of his head.... [In] the great Sperm Whale, this high and mighty god-like dignity inherent in the brow is so immensely amplified, that gazing on it, in that full front view, you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcibly than in beholding any other object in living nature.

Several sources (including MW and TFD citing CED) place the fearsomeness and humbling senses together in definitions like MW's:

  1. inspiring dread : causing great and oppressive fear
  2. inspiring awe or reverence
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I might also go for "dumbfounding", literally striking one dumb with amazement.

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Oxford Learner's Dictionaries

  1. causing a lot of damage and destruction: a devastating explosion/fire/cyclone

  2. impressive and powerful: Her smile was devastating.

My own sentence: The giant dragon dance in the Chinese New Year parade was devastatingly beautiful

An Unnamed Adaption: The Adaption Trilogy--Book 1

"The NER fascinated me. Twenty-one arms of the machine linked themselves to seven major sectinos. Redundancy on this massive scale might be unnecessary in more specific machines, but each arm boosted the general power of the next one to a maximum of six times standard capacity....It was an engineering marvel---beautiful and devastating."

Bullán: An Irish Studies Journal, Volumes 3-4

"The original Irish story centres on Deirdre, a young woman of whom it is predicted that her devastating beauty will bring disaster to Ulster."

Augusta Played

"They were very attractive eyes though, she thought, moving her chair closer to him until their knees bumped. 'You have very interesting eyes,' she said, 'Like a person in a book. I would say they are devastating. Yes,' she said, peering into them,'they are quite definitely very devastating eyes. Have you ever tried to hypnotize anybody with them?' "


"His suit followed his long frame and highlighted his devastating face. A face that had always been that handsome, butsomehow hidden under straggly hairand rippedup clothes. He hadn't been quiteso intimidating as he looked now."

Desert Affair

"Her thoughts were a whirling mass of chaos, incapable of forming a single coherent thread. The only thing she knew or recognised was this man before her. This hard-boned, devastating face, the obsidian glitter of those deep eyes holding hers with hypnotic ease."

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The closest word I can come up with is "fascinate." Although it doesn't overtly imply anything negative, it doesn't imply anything positive either. If that doesn't work for you, I'm not sure if "transfixing" is a word, but if it is it might work even better.

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If a natural occurring disaster's magnitude induces awe and wonder as well as fear and terror, you could talk about its spellbound effect

Entranced by or as if by a spell; fascinated.

If you require an adjective say, a spellbinding tsunami.

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Spellbinding would be the adjective for the phenomenon. Spellbound would describe the effect on the beholder. – 200_success Oct 26 '14 at 21:41

Sublime was used notably by Edmund Burke to mean just this. It is still commonly used and understood this way in philosophical, art, critical theory circles.

"The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other." [Burke, On the Sublime, ed. J. T. Bolton. 58]

Despite other people posting excellent words in other answers, you might want to consider this word in this context as it is specifically contrasted with beauty. As you are talking about disasters, -- just the sort of thing it was coined for, -- sublime might be very useful to prevent you sounding like Hannibal Lecter.

Awesome and awful both started meaning something similar, but very quickly went their own ways (cf. terrible and terrific). Unlike sublime, I think these are beyond rescue.

Father reading: The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, Vol. I. (of 12), by Edmund Burke http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15043/15043-h/15043-h.htm

Visual Example: Joseph Mallord William "J. M. W." Turner Snow-storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812) http://www.tate.org.uk/art/images/work/N/N00/N00490_10.jpg

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Sublime originally had more the sense of high, lofty (literally), and now it's mostly used more abstractly to mean excellent, superb, wonderful. But I'm not aware it has (or ever had) any connotations of being terrible (in the sense of inspiring terror, fear, which is what I understand OP to be looking for). – FumbleFingers Oct 26 '14 at 21:54
Kant and Burke both explicitly talk of the terrible sublime in that sense: Kant in "Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime" and Burke in "A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful". Their use was far from idiosyncratic for the era. There are plenty of references on the Wikipedia pages linked from Sublime_(Philosophy) including PG links, and various references scattered around the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. See, for example, the discusison there of Schopenhaur's Aesthetics on the sublime pleasure taken in the witness of tragedy – Dan Sheppard Oct 26 '14 at 22:22
I just cut&pasted Kant and Burke from your comment into Google, to check exactly when they were active. Interestingly, Google immediately suggested I must really want to search for difference between kant and burke sublime. I'm not going to read all about it now, but I would just say that in the Wikipedia article on sublime philosophy (that came top of Google's amended search), I didn't see anything about fear or awe in the introductory paragraph. But further down I did notice Burke was the first philosopher to argue that the sublime and the beautiful are mutually exclusive. – FumbleFingers Oct 26 '14 at 22:33
I'm not sure Wikipedia and google are always the best of places to start with this kind of thing, but they're certainly quick! In WP, this meaning is discussed first in the fourth paragraph, and continues to the sixteenth. Overall there are twenty-four paragraphs on Sublime and half of them refer to this meaning, the other half to all other meanings, and summaries. In my question the first three sentences qualify my suggestion to point exactly this out and I mention that if the OP considers this inappropriate they might consider one of the many other lovely answers, including your own. – Dan Sheppard Oct 26 '14 at 22:40

protected by tchrist Jan 1 '15 at 15:07

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