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I always thought that intense has a positive meaning, meaning something that has no tensions, therefore an intense activity is actually a fun activity. So, what does intense exactly mean? A few days ago I was having a sub for breakfast and my colleague said to me "that's intense". I'm really confused now, what did she mean?

And if intense has a negative meaning, then is tense positive? Tense is not an adjective, is it?

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4 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Let's start here.

intense: 1. (of a condition, quality, feeling, etc.) Existing in a high degree; forceful or extreme: "this job demands intense concentration".

So, given that. I'd say that whether it is positive depends on the context.

Wow, carrying these boulders is intense.

Would be negative (assuming you don't like to carry boulders).

The football game was intense.

Could be considered positive.

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Both the NOAD and the OALD give for tense a negative meaning; check tense on the OALD.

On the NOAD you can find these definitions for tense:

  • (esp. of a muscle or someone's body) stretched tight or rigid;
  • (of a person) unable to relax because of nervousness, anxiety, or stimulation;
  • (of a situation, event, etc.) causing or showing anxiety and nervousness.

As you see, no positive meanings.


Intense, though, means "very strong" so you could use it in a positive way as well.

The Etymology for intense is this one, taken from the NOAD:

Origin - late Middle English: from Old French, or from Latin intensusstretched tightly, strained’ past participle of intendere.

Be careful: The fact that you can use it in a positive way doesn't mean that it means "free of tension" like you said. On the contrary, it gives a strong feeling. It can be negative or positive, yes, but still very strong. On the OALD link above it said "the intense blue of her eyes": It can be a positive feature (as in you were admiring it), but you won't think it's a light blue.

Finally, I want to give you another comparison. The terms are Intense and Intensive, and their difference in usage (still NOAD):

USAGE - Intense and intensive are similar in meaning, but they differ in emphasis.

Intense tends to relate to subjective responses—emotions and how we feel—while intensive tends to relate to objective descriptions. Thus: an intensive course simply describes the type of course: one that is designed to cover a lot of ground in a short time (for example, by being full-time rather than part-time). On the other hand, in: the course was intense, the word intense describes how someone felt about the course.

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Refer here: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/intense

Intense can have different meanings depending on the context.

  • Example a: the pain was intense (talking about extremes)
  • Example b: His passion for the subject is intense (still extreme, but includes a sense of purpose)

Now in your case, i.e. the breakfast with your colleague, it depends on her perspective. For example, if it contained onions and the smell was powerful, she could've meant it in a negative light.

However, if the breakfast was extremely satisfying, then "intense" in this case is positive. Long story short, you could've clarified her remark with a simple and informal question: "Is that a good thing?".

Tense, on the other hand, is a different word altogether and I would suggest reading more about it here: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tense

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Intense isn't literally negative; it isn't the negation of tense. It just means "forceful, extreme, or demanding".

It sometimes has negative connotations. An intense person might be considered humorless, obsessed, or unforgiving. An intense experience might be exhausting.

The expression "that's intense" is just jargon. Like a hundred similar expressions ("cool", "awesome", "whoa"), "intense" is just used to mean little more than "I wish to pretend to be interested in what you are saying, but lack the interest or the capacity to actually think about it." Avoid using such phrases and consider avoiding people who do.

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That last sentence is intense. –  Callithumpian May 14 '11 at 0:12
    
Negative and negation have two different meanings. Negative means also harmful, unwelcome; if I ask if a word has a negative meaning, I am not asking if the word is the negation of another one. The example made by @Callithumpian makes this clear; does intense has a negative meaning, in that sentence? –  kiamlaluno May 14 '11 at 3:07
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