Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

What are the origins of the word "terrible". Do the words "terror" or "terrific" come from the same roots?

I am curious since I believe the word "terrible" can be used to mean "great" in French.

share|improve this question
    
All your adjectives are belong to nous! –  user58594 Dec 1 '13 at 1:41

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Both terrible and terrific go back, through French and Latin to Proto Indo European roots meaning to shiver. The origin is self explanatory: extreme fear being well known to provoke shivering.

To these two you can therefore add tremor and tremble.

In English "terrible" and "terrific" are antonyms. Terrific means exceptionally good and on the contrary, terrible means exceptionally bad.

In French however, terrific does not exist and terrible has both significations. Only the context, common sense or the status of the speaker will tell you which meaning to choose from.

If one says "c'est pas terrible", that will mean below average. If a youngster says "this singer is terrible", that has to be understood as appreciative.

In "Ivan le terrible" though, the meaning is obviously not "the Great".

share|improve this answer
1  
And "C'est terrible" would depend entirely on the context. –  Cedric H. Apr 27 '11 at 9:40
    
A bit like the English word "wicked" then. –  Urbycoz Apr 27 '11 at 12:50
    
From Lewis and Short: terreo - to frighten, affright, put in fear or dread, to alarm, terrify. ( perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/… ) –  MaQleod Apr 27 '11 at 20:01
    
A friend found the word terrible in her KJV Bible to describe God. She was confused and asked for my help. In its biblical setting it was obvious that the word described His awesomeness; it referred to God's greatness, not his "badness". –  user24923 Aug 15 '12 at 21:02
  • Terrible comes (through the Old French terrible) from the Latin terribilis, of the verb terrere (“fill with fear”)
  • Terrific comes from the Latin terrificus (“causing fear”), built from terrere + facere (“make”) (this root of facere is the reason for the suffix -ficus in Latin, -fique in French and thus -fic in English).
  • To go further, terror comes from Old French terreur, from Latin terror, in turn from terrere.

So, both come from the same Latin verb.


To go even further, though it's off topic, the French terrible to mean “great” was very used in the language of les précieuses. The TLF calls this informal, though: “Fam. [Empl. comme intensif; avec valeur méliorative] Sensationnel, extraordinaire, propre à susciter l'admiration.” (Informal [Intensifier, meliorative] Sensational, outstanding, worthy of admiration.)

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.