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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 at 2:48
    
How about magnificent desolation? (google it) –  user13107 Feb 19 at 3:35

9 Answers 9

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

awesome
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 at 5:17
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+1 for an awesome answer. –  Kris Feb 19 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 at 13:05

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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"egregious" is an auto-autonym that fits to the definition if we count the archaic use.

1 outstandingly bad; shocking:

2 archaic remarkably good.

Much more details are in the below post as well:

What's up with the word "egregious"?

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The word literally means 'out of the flock' (ex 'out of' + grege 'flock') and thus 'standing out'. 'Standing out' can be either good or bad, whence came the ambiguity. –  Anonym Feb 19 at 2:24

Perhaps daunting

overwhelming, intimidatingly impressive

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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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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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I might also go for "dumbfounding", literally striking one dumb with amazement.

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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 at 21:41

In its original sense this is very close to the meaning of sublime. (Well not quite original but since the rise of romanticism in the 18th Century). It is still commonly used and understood this way in philosophical and art-critical circles.

Despite other people posting excellent words in other answers, you might want to consider this word as, in its traditional treatment 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 looking 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.

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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 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 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 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 at 22:40

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