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A friend has just told me that "terror" used to be a good thing, as opposed to the negative thing it is today:

ter·ror (trr) n.

  1. Intense, overpowering fear. See Synonyms at fear.
  2. One that instills intense fear: a rabid dog that became the terror of the neighborhood.
  3. The ability to instill intense fear: the terror of jackboots pounding down the street.
  4. Violence committed or threatened by a group to intimidate or coerce a population, as for military or political purposes.

He claims this is why we have the English word "terrific". I also know that the French word "terrible" means "great".

Is he right, and if so when did it change?

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Note that the French usage of terrible in the sense of great is only a colloquialism. The main meaning of terrible in French is terrible (in English). –  nico Mar 21 '12 at 13:10
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@nico Ah, so "terrible" means "terrible". Makes sense. –  Urbycoz Mar 21 '12 at 13:33
    
TERROR ... good or bad? If you are the French resistance fighter in 1944 dynamiting a Nazi supply convoy, you are GOOD. If you are the Algerian resistance fighter in 1962 dynamiting a French supply convoy, you are BAD. –  GEdgar Mar 21 '12 at 13:45
    
One interesting link with the French - "c'est pas terrible" looks like it means "it's not terrible" but actually means "it's not great". –  Rich Mar 21 '12 at 15:08
    
Your friend has got things totally mixed up - what she's thinking of is that something terrific used to mean something really bad, but now it means something really good. This is common knowledge, and General Reference. –  FumbleFingers Mar 21 '12 at 18:06
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up vote 13 down vote accepted

The OED reports, as a first meaning for terrific

  1. Causing terror, terrifying; fitted to terrify; dreadful, terrible, frightful.

     1667 Milton P.L. vii. 497 The Serpent‥with brazen Eyes And hairie Main terrific. 1718 Pope Iliad x. 300 In arms terrific their huge limbs they dress'd. 1796 Morse Amer. Geog. I. 345 Even Canonicus‥the terrific Sachem of the Narragansetts, sued for peace. 1821 Craig Lect. Drawing iv. 214, I cannot‥advise you to attempt any species of the terrific in painting. 1899 Ward Hist. Dram. Lit. (ed. 2) I. 307 A terrific woodcut depicts the most sensational situation in the story.

It also reports the colloquial meaning of great

2.b. As an enthusiastic term of commendation: superlatively good, ‘marvellous’, ‘great’. Also Comb. colloq.
1930 D. G. Mackail Young Livingstones xi. 271 ‘Thanks awfully,’ said Rex. ‘That'll be ripping.’ ‘Fine!’ said Derek Yardley. ‘Great! Terrific!’ 1940 Chatelaine Dec. 10/3 But think what it means that they want to come to you. Your bedside manner must be terrific. 1944 Sun (Baltimore) 20 Dec. 1/7 Lee McCardell [a reporter] is terrific—first into Metz, first into St. Avold, first into Saarlautern. 1951 ‘A. Garve’ Murder in Moscow iii. 47 Perdita‥looked terrific in midnight-blue velvet. 1951 J. D. Salinger Catcher in Rye xii. 103 This‥guy had a terrific-looking girl with him. Boy, she was good-looking.  1971 Farmer & Stockbreeder 23 Feb. 39/1 He believes the soil is ‘terrific’ for potatoes and wheat. 1981 Daily Mail 14 October 15/1, ‘I feel great, really terrific,’ said the former Wings guitarist.

Note how the quotations for this second meaning are much more recent.

I would therefore say that the opposite of what your friend is saying is true: the "positive" meaning of terrific came after the negative one.

Furthermore, the OED does not report any positive meaning for terror.

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I don't agree with your friend. According to Etymonline, terrific comes from the same root as terror, but it dates from the 1660s meaning frightening. Its colloquial sense of excellent appeared in 1888. See here for the entry. The word started out having a negative meaning which became positive over the years. The words terror and terrible never had a pleasant connotation, quite the opposite.

As for terrible in French, its colloquial sense is indeed great. However, if you look here, you will see that most meanings attributed to this word are not positive.

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It's not so much that terror was "considered a good thing;" it's more that the word terrific was used to express magnitude rather than fright, beginning in the 1800s. See the Online Etymology Dictionary's Origin of Terrific.

It's not overly surprising. Considering how, in a similar fashion, "great" can be used in a negative sense. Usually, we think of great as positive (a great game, the Great Wall, etc.), but great can also mean extensive, leading to expressions that sound like oxymorons on the surface (a great flood, the Great Chicago Fire).

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I think the example of great is not really fit. A great flood just means a big flood it is not an oxymoron. I would rather compare this to the use of awesome. –  nico Mar 21 '12 at 16:57
    
@nico: Awesome! I agree, awesome is a better example of what I was trying to convey. (Just to clarify, though, I concur: great flood is not a true oxymoron, I only claimed that it might "sound" that way "on the surface"). –  J.R. Mar 21 '12 at 17:11
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On a more philosophical stance rather than linguistic terror can be positive. A good thing can be something pleasurable or something that pushes the individual to achieve a more fulfilling state. Terror in art can be pleasurable (see horror films) as stated by Aristotle in his theory of catharsis, see here (where the word terror is used) and here. Basically collectively experiencing fear and pity in a 'safe' environment and as a collective experience 'purges' the soul.

Another aspect of 'terror' that may be judged positive is in the aesthetic experience of the sublime, by which, in a nutshell, the magnitude and strength perceived in nature or in its representation (think: the size of the universe, the number of galaxies, the age of our planet, etc) reminds us of our ephemeral nature.

Several spiritual traditions also attribute many benefits to fear. Fear of God is not considered harmful for example, because it keeps us in the right path. Also in Carlos Castaneda's work, Don Juan, Castaneda's alleged teacher on the path of wisdom, mentions fear (particularly of death) or at least an awareness of it, as a necessary step towards enlightenment.

Therefore it could be the case that when 'terror of God' was a common expression, the meaning of terror had more positive connotations than today.

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