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How and why have some words changed to a complete opposite?

I have noticed that:

  • horrible means bad
  • terrible means bad
  • horrific means bad

So why does terrific mean good?

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3  
I think you meant for your question title to read "what gave 'terrific' a positive connotation", then. –  Matthew Frederick Aug 19 '11 at 20:32
    
@Matthew Fixed. Thank you. –  Renan Aug 19 '11 at 20:39
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And by the same token, why does awful mean bad? –  z7sg Ѫ Aug 19 '11 at 20:50
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While this is indeed a duplicate (of several other questions, actually), at least it was asked with flair! –  John Y Aug 20 '11 at 2:17
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@John Y Here you go. i.stack.imgur.com/5lRSd.jpg –  Renan Aug 24 '11 at 15:42
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marked as duplicate by Alenanno, Thursagen, waiwai933 Aug 20 '11 at 0:36

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1 Answer

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The meaning of terrific has actually changed over time. According to EtymOnline:

1660s, "frightening," from L. terrificus "causing terror or fear," from terrere "fill with fear" (see terrible) + root of facere "to make" (see factitious). Weakened sensed of "very great, severe" (e.g. terrific headache) appeared 1809; colloquial sense of "excellent" began 1888.

So terrific started out on the same lines as horrific, but then gained a positive colloquial sense in the late 1800s. The phenomenon in which a previously bad word takes on a good connotation is discussed here, in which it is called amelioration.

Amelioration (which has occurred for terrific, wicked, luxury) is a type of semantic change. While it is unclear what precisely happened to terrific, there are a few ways in which this change can occur:

  • Linguistic forces
  • Psychological forces
  • Sociocultural forces
  • Cultural/encyclopedic forces

You can read more about it here. It has been suggested (though there is little proof) that terrific became "good" because of an association with the popular media via King Kong. Other than this theory, though, it is clear that terrific underwent some kind of semantic change between the late 1800s and early 1900s. In 1930 Popular Science was still using the term to mean something "frightening", and by the 1940s it was used mostly to mean "good".

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Has "awful" been ameliorated? It was certainly pejorated first (Christopher Wren iirc described St Paul's as awful -- in the good way), going from "awe-inspiring" to "very bad", and it's gone up, just a bit, to mean "very" in some contexts. –  Malvolio Aug 19 '11 at 21:45
    
@Malvolio Edited to use "luxury" instead. I was just pulling examples of semantic change, but not the right ones –  simchona Aug 19 '11 at 21:47
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@simchona The answer in this duplicate question is a lot better than that of the original. It's a pity it had to be closed. Thank you, anyway. –  Renan Aug 20 '11 at 13:50
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