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I was interested in the phrase, “We had a terrible breakup, like horrific,” appearing in New York Times’ (September 26) theater review, titled “Old Friends Whose Past Is Always Present,” which comments on the Debate Society’s shows. It goes:

“I won’t tell that story,” he responded. Their director, Oliver Butler, 34 — sitting across from Ms. Bos at a table on the roof of the Bushwick Starr, where their new “Blood Play” begins previews on Wednesday — looked curious, adding quietly that he didn’t know the story.

Then came a dramatic pause.

We had a terrible breakup, like horrific,” Ms. Bos blurted out.

Awful,” Mr. Thureen added with alacrity, as if finishing her sentence.

The exchange was like a scene from one of their plays.”

Why does Hannah Bos complement “terrible” breakup with “like horrific”?

What are the differences of nuance and level of “horribleness” among “terrible” “horrific,” and “awful,” which was deliberately added to by Paul Thureen? Are they all the same, and simple or redundant rewording?

Additional but important question, what does “Old friends whose past is always present” mean? Is this phrase the Debate Society’s coinage?

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Oishi-san, I feel that your additional question ("Additional but important question, what does “Old friends whose past is always present” mean? Is this phrase the Debate Society’s coinage?") should be asked separately, as it doesn't directly relate to you primary question. – Kit Z. Fox Sep 28 '12 at 1:25
@KitFox. Thanks. I was able to get satisfactory answers to my question from respectable colleagues before separating questions derived from the same article. – Yoichi Oishi Sep 28 '12 at 2:28
up vote 7 down vote accepted

In context, the three different words are just emphasizing each other. I wouldn't call them redundant, though: if you removed any of them, you wouldn't get across the same meaning.

If used separately, I'd say "horrific" is the worst of the bunch. (Certainly, its literal meaning is much worse than something that's just "awful"; but of course, not everyone1 uses such terms literally.) A horrific car accident probably involves pools of blood on the ground.

Second worst would be "terrible". A terrible car accident probably involves much crunching of vehicles, deformed metal all over the place, but if there is blood, it's not prominent.

The least worst2 of the three words is "awful"3. An awful car accident is worse than a fender-bender, certainly, but it might not have involved any injuries - well, except to your insurance premium.

[I'd interpret "Old friends whose past is always present" as something like "Old friends whose history is always on your mind when you're together", e.g. you can't think of Edna without remembering her bad divorce from her husband who also used to be your friend; or here's Bob, who looks amazing after he lost all that weight... 15 years ago; etc.]

1 Read: almost nobody
2 Yeah, yeah, I know, that's terrible.
3 In fact, it used to mean something like "awe-inspiring", but that was a long time ago.

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I completely disagree. The use of three words is simple emphasis - none of them add any subtle nuance in and of themselves, and your distinctions are just subjective. Nor does your interpretation of the "old friends" seem the most probable to me. Not that it matters because it's Lit. Crit. rather than ELU proper, but most likely it's people who "live in the past". – FumbleFingers Sep 28 '12 at 3:02
@FumbleFingers, where did I say anything about subtle nuance? In fact, I said pretty much exactly the same thing as you: "...just emphasizing each other...". Taken separately, however, the words do have different connotations; yes, they're subjective, but they're not just subjective. As far as the "old friends" quote, it's probably deliberately ambiguous, and your guess is certainly not a bad one. – Marthaª Sep 28 '12 at 5:29
Martha: I liked your answer (in fact, I upvoted it). The one part I might take exception to is "I wouldn't call them redundant, though: if you removed any of them, you wouldn't get across the same meaning." Maybe you wouldn't want to remove any of them, but you could replace any one of the three with a synonym (such as dreadful) and the meaning of the discussion would remain the same. We agree on this: the words are not utterly interchangeable, but, in the context of the dialog, they're all being used as synonyms to reinforce one general idea. Plus, I think you broke down the 3 quite well. – J.R. Sep 28 '12 at 9:14
@J.R., Martha: Agreed in the present context all three words are effectively interchangeable repetitions. But I don't accept they can be "ranked" by severity (amount of blood, mental anguish, etc.) in any meaningful way in any context. Some people (incl. Martha, obviously) may think an awful accident is less severe than a terrible one, but that's a strictly personal interpretation. OED gives awful: terrible, dreadful, appalling; terrible: frightful, dreadful; horrible: dreadful, hideous, shocking, frightful, awful. Much of a muchness, I'd say. – FumbleFingers Sep 28 '12 at 12:32
@Fumble: I agree that it's subjective, but, I'll bet if you asked 100 people to rank-order horrific, terrible, and awful, then most of the respondents would use the order Martha gave, which is why I liked her breakdown. Given that the O.P. specifically inquired, "What are the differences of nuance and level?" I think Martha gave a commendable response. – J.R. Sep 28 '12 at 12:59

To some extent, like here is just a verbal filler (Know what I mean, like?). Perhaps you could also say it alludes to terrible is like horrific, but I wouldn't analyse it that far myself.

So, read "...like horrific" as "[...or, to restate, the breakup was] horrific". Which Mr. Thureen extends with "[and to restate again, the breakup was] awful".

It's meaningless to "rank" terrible, horrific, awful on a "scale" - they're simply repetitions (made for emphasis, not redundant) which could just as easily have been given in any other sequence.

I wouldn't call this specific instance of ...whose past is always present a "coinage". Possibly the writer hadn't come across it before, but there are thousands of variations on "past is always present". It's an obvious "use and forget" turn of phrase with low "novelty wordplay" value.

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Terrible and awful are used as vague, slightly more intense synonyms for "bad". "He's an awful speller" and "He's a terrible speller" are almost indistinguishable in meaning, and difficult to distinguish from "He's a bad speller." For that reason, I eschew both words, and recommend you do the same.

Horrific still retains the meaning of "evoking horror". An accident can be horrific, a war, a disease. You cannot be a "horrific speller".

EDIT some people have defended the usage "horrific speller" as hyperbole.

Hyperbole makes for great humor. Viz the master, Dave Barry:

A man can have a belly you could house commercial aircraft in and a grand total of eight greasy strands of hair, which he grows real long and combs across the top of his head so that he looks, when viewed from above, like an egg in the grasp of a giant spider, plus this man can have B.O. to the point where he interferes with radio transmissions, and he will still be convinced that, in terms of attractiveness, he is borderline Don Johnson.

What it doesn't make for is great, or even good, serious writing. Every "bad" thing becomes "awful" and "terrible", and when those adjectives weaken and fail, the hyperbolist must enlist "god-awful", "horrific", "wretched" -- the thesaurus is sacked and every vaguely negative polysyllabic is pressed into service.

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"You cannot be a 'horrific speller'": sure you can. It's called hyperbole. (Though there are some people for whom it's not much of an exaggeration at all.) – Marthaª Sep 28 '12 at 1:15

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