I want to know a word that describes the phenomenon of something being both beautiful and terrible at the same time, like a tsunami or the eye of a tornado.

  • 7
    Of course, terrific would have worked a long time ago. OED's first definition is Causing terror, terrifying; terrible, frightful; stirring, awe-inspiring; sublime, although they do say that usage is Now rare. These days it's invariably used according to their definition 2a: amazing, impressive; excellent, exceedingly good, splendid. Much the same is happening to awesome these days, but most older speakers (and some younger ones) are still aware of the original sense and may occasionally use it. Feb 19, 2014 at 2:48
  • How about magnificent desolation? (google it)
    – user13107
    Feb 19, 2014 at 3:35
  • 1
    "Awful", in it's literal meaning.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 1, 2015 at 20:26
  • For those that are Tolkien fans: Perhaps the word “Galadrielic” would work for you. ;-) “And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”
    – user305707
    Jul 30, 2018 at 17:48

12 Answers 12


It's a bit overused these days, obviously, but...

inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear; causing or inducing awe
Slang. very impressive

...seems to me to be exactly what OP is looking for.

  • 2
    I agree with "terrific" more than "awesome" actually. And especially if we are mentioning about a natural disaster. Because terrific not only means terrible but also means extremely good and very BIG. It also means "awesome" itself :)
    – ermanen
    Feb 19, 2014 at 5:17
  • @ermanen: The most awesome sight to the few people who would survive the eruption to tell the story is the volcanic lightning. I think that works as it stands, successfully incorporating both aspects of awe. But it seems to me you'd really need something like terrific but terrifying if you wanted both OP's senses based on that root. Feb 19, 2014 at 13:05
  • “Awesome” doesn’t have any connotations of beauty.
    – user305707
    Jul 30, 2018 at 17:44
  • @Nathan M.: Not to you, maybe. But as the top entry in Urban Dictionary says, it's Something Americans use to describe everything. Including sights / people / actions one might admire for their "beauty". Jul 30, 2018 at 17:59
  • 1
    Maybe Urban Dictionary isn't always 100% reliable, but as a native speaker I'm perfectly happy to say that I know the language well enough to be my own authority in matters like this. I use the word myself, fer chrissakes! So of course I know what it means / how it can be used. Jul 30, 2018 at 18:07

The word awe-inspiring is closer to the old meaning of awesome, without the modern baggage.

From the Wiktionary page on awesome:

The oldest meaning of "awesome" is "something which inspires awe", but the word is also a common slang expression in English, originally from America. As the original meaning of awesome has become somewhat antiquated in general use, the term awe-inspiring is now generally used for the same meaning.


Perhaps daunting

overwhelming, intimidatingly impressive


WB Yeats in his poem Easter, 1916 deliberately didn't pick a single word; instead he used the phrase a terrible beauty for the effects of the Dublin rebellion.

So you could reuse that with a passing nod to Yeats. And anyone interested in Irish history will pick up on the classic reference.

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Easter, 1916

P.S. I know the OP asked for a single word but if Yeats was happy with two, perhaps that's worth considering.


I am inspired to write the eloborated answer because I faintly disagree with the word 'awesome' (or terrific, or formidable). I think they hardly describes the concoction of the sense: something both beautiful and terrible at the same time.

I had a same curiosity few days back and I did spent some quality time searching for the answer. Then I landed up here. Now, I am presenting you my terrific voyage on this beautiful question.

Few adjectives that qualify, but not sufficiently confine the entire sense of "something being both beautiful and terrible at the same time" are listed below with their etymological derivations.

At the end of the description, I have a surprise for you or to say probable answer!

So, let's start...

AWESOME (Adj.) The most common choice is 'Awesome' or ''awe-inspiring. The Merriam Webster describes it as

Awesome: inspiring awe. an awesome task/responsibility. "A place of awesome beauty " or "the awesome power of the atomic bomb".

but informally it is now used as: extremely good, excellent, terrific, extraordinary. "had an awesome time at the concert."

History of the word 'Awesome':

  • 1590s: profoundly reverential, from awe (n.) + -some.
  • 1670s: inspiring awe or dread
  • 1961: (recorded) weakened colloquial sense of "impressive, very good"
  • 1980: (became vogue) sense of "impressive, very good"

When we dig down the history of the word then it describes the idea "You respect something because it is profound or impressive". Here, we don't get the sense of 'beauty'.

E.g. For the character King Kong in the movie, I would certainly use the word awesome because it describes the sense that king kong is both profound and impressive, it is awesome, but it is not beautiful. Though, beauty (beautiful) is a relative word. We always like to say, Unicorn is beautiful, butterfly is beautiful, or a beautiful lady. Beauty is something charming or seductive or attractive.

With etymological chronology we have seen that the word 'awesome' is losing the sense of being 'awe' after 1961. More and more it is used to describe something impressively good.

Also, simply the word 'awesome' doesn't fully qualify or carry the sense of something both beautiful and terrible at the same time. Etymologically, it talks more about dread and respect at the same time.

FORMIDABLE (Adj.) An other word is Formidable. The Merriam Webster describes it as

inspiring fear or respect through being impressively large, powerful, intense, or capable. "a formidable opponent"

It also gives us, sense of something large and inspiring fear. It doesn't talk about 'beauty'.

The commonness between Awesome and Formidable is that they inspire fear and the delineating difference between them is that Awesome inspires fear out of reverential profoundness, and Formidable inspires fear out of being large in size.

The other word we can inspect closely is

TERRIFIC (Adj.): The Merriam Webster describes it as

extremely good, unusually fine : magnificent, extraordinary, or exciting or fit to excite fear or awe

History of the word 'Terrific' and its usage:

  • 1660s: frightening, from Latin terrificus "causing terror or fear, frightful.
  • 1809: Weakened sensed of "very great, severe" (as in terrific headache) appeared
  • 1888: inverted colloquial sense of "excellent" (Related: Terrifically).

We can say that it inspires fear. So, just like awesome and formidable, terrific doesn't comprise any element of beauty in it.


While surfing the internet I came across this beautiful word described on Urban dictionary. But there is a risk or downside using this word:

  1. It is newly coined word (probably by amateur), hence you can't get any reference in any literature work.
  2. Urban dictionary is maintained by Amateur.
  3. You can't use it in test or examination because of point (1).
  4. Language pedantic may be reluctant to use it.

On the other side, this word can be used frequently and made accepted just like the word 'Selfie'.

For an example the word selfie was defined in Urban dictionary in 2009, July 29 by SaRAWRR as "A picture taken of yourself that is planned to be uploaded to Facebook, Myspace or any other sort of social networking website...."

But it was only introduce in Oxford Dictionary by 2013. Thus making it an official English word.

Urban dictionary describes Wynorrific as, "Something being both beautiful and terrible at the same time." "Wynorrific cyclone sight."

If I am not wrong then digging Etymology online dictionary for Wyn, Horrific, Terrific etc., I came to know that Wynn: "pleasure, delight," from Proto-Germanic and Horrific: "causing horror"


MEDUSA (noun)

Following is the excerpt from wiki article [2nd paragraph of Classical mythology]:

While ancient Greek vase-painters and relief carvers imagined Medusa and her sisters as beings born of monstrous form, sculptors and vase-painters of the fifth century began to envisage her as being beautiful as well as terrifying.

You can use Medusa as noun adjunct.

Wiki article on noun adjunct.

In grammar, a noun adjunct or attributive noun or noun (pre)modifier is an optional noun that modifies another noun; it is a noun functioning as a pre-modifier in a noun phrase. For example, in the phrase "chicken soup" the noun adjunct "chicken" modifies the noun "soup". It is irrelevant whether the resulting compound noun is spelled in one or two parts. "Field" is a noun adjunct in both "field player" and "fieldhouse".


I wanted to suggest captivating, with its ties to the Latin word for prisoner. But as TFD and my experience indicate, this word may be too stilted toward the beauty of the disaster and not its fearsomeness. Another word that strikes a better balance is imposing, cited by MW as meaning

impressive in size, bearing, dignity, or grandeur

Lists of its synonyms commonly include reverential words like majestic or sovereign. But the use of imposing sometimes indicates a sense of foreboding as in this excerpt of Notre-Dame de Paris:

[Frollo] was an imposing and sombre personage, before whom the choir boys in alb and in jacket trembled...

A similar use in Moby Dick unveils another possible word:

[The] most imposing physiognomical view to be had of the Sperm Whale, is that of the full front of his head.... [In] the great Sperm Whale, this high and mighty god-like dignity inherent in the brow is so immensely amplified, that gazing on it, in that full front view, you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcibly than in beholding any other object in living nature.

Several sources (including MW and TFD citing CED) place the fearsomeness and humbling senses together in definitions like MW's:

  1. inspiring dread : causing great and oppressive fear
  2. inspiring awe or reverence

I might also go for "dumbfounding", literally striking one dumb with amazement.


Sublime was used notably by Edmund Burke to mean just this. It is still commonly used and understood this way in philosophical, art, critical theory circles.

"The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other." [Burke, On the Sublime, ed. J. T. Bolton. 58]

Despite other people posting excellent words in other answers, you might want to consider this word in this context as it is specifically contrasted with beauty. As you are talking about disasters, -- just the sort of thing it was coined for, -- sublime might be very useful to prevent you sounding like Hannibal Lecter.

Awesome and awful both started meaning something similar, but very quickly went their own ways (cf. terrible and terrific). Unlike sublime, I think these are beyond rescue.

Father reading: The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, Vol. I. (of 12), by Edmund Burke http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15043/15043-h/15043-h.htm

Visual Example: Joseph Mallord William "J. M. W." Turner Snow-storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812) http://www.tate.org.uk/art/images/work/N/N00/N00490_10.jpg

  • Sublime originally had more the sense of high, lofty (literally), and now it's mostly used more abstractly to mean excellent, superb, wonderful. But I'm not aware it has (or ever had) any connotations of being terrible (in the sense of inspiring terror, fear, which is what I understand OP to be looking for). Oct 26, 2014 at 21:54
  • Kant and Burke both explicitly talk of the terrible sublime in that sense: Kant in "Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime" and Burke in "A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful". Their use was far from idiosyncratic for the era. There are plenty of references on the Wikipedia pages linked from Sublime_(Philosophy) including PG links, and various references scattered around the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. See, for example, the discusison there of Schopenhaur's Aesthetics on the sublime pleasure taken in the witness of tragedy
    – Dan
    Oct 26, 2014 at 22:22
  • I just cut&pasted Kant and Burke from your comment into Google, to check exactly when they were active. Interestingly, Google immediately suggested I must really want to search for difference between kant and burke sublime. I'm not going to read all about it now, but I would just say that in the Wikipedia article on sublime philosophy (that came top of Google's amended search), I didn't see anything about fear or awe in the introductory paragraph. But further down I did notice Burke was the first philosopher to argue that the sublime and the beautiful are mutually exclusive. Oct 26, 2014 at 22:33
  • I'm not sure Wikipedia and google are always the best of places to start with this kind of thing, but they're certainly quick! In WP, this meaning is discussed first in the fourth paragraph, and continues to the sixteenth. Overall there are twenty-four paragraphs on Sublime and half of them refer to this meaning, the other half to all other meanings, and summaries. In my question the first three sentences qualify my suggestion to point exactly this out and I mention that if the OP considers this inappropriate they might consider one of the many other lovely answers, including your own.
    – Dan
    Oct 26, 2014 at 22:40


Oxford Learner's Dictionaries

  1. causing a lot of damage and destruction: a devastating explosion/fire/cyclone

  2. impressive and powerful: Her smile was devastating.

My own sentence: The giant dragon dance in the Chinese New Year parade was devastatingly beautiful

An Unnamed Adaption: The Adaption Trilogy--Book 1

"The NER fascinated me. Twenty-one arms of the machine linked themselves to seven major sectinos. Redundancy on this massive scale might be unnecessary in more specific machines, but each arm boosted the general power of the next one to a maximum of six times standard capacity....It was an engineering marvel---beautiful and devastating."

Bullán: An Irish Studies Journal, Volumes 3-4

"The original Irish story centres on Deirdre, a young woman of whom it is predicted that her devastating beauty will bring disaster to Ulster."

Augusta Played

"They were very attractive eyes though, she thought, moving her chair closer to him until their knees bumped. 'You have very interesting eyes,' she said, 'Like a person in a book. I would say they are devastating. Yes,' she said, peering into them,'they are quite definitely very devastating eyes. Have you ever tried to hypnotize anybody with them?' "


"His suit followed his long frame and highlighted his devastating face. A face that had always been that handsome, butsomehow hidden under straggly hairand rippedup clothes. He hadn't been quiteso intimidating as he looked now."

Desert Affair

"Her thoughts were a whirling mass of chaos, incapable of forming a single coherent thread. The only thing she knew or recognised was this man before her. This hard-boned, devastating face, the obsidian glitter of those deep eyes holding hers with hypnotic ease."


Some of the Romantics used the word sublime in this fashion.


The closest word I can come up with is "fascinate." Although it doesn't overtly imply anything negative, it doesn't imply anything positive either. If that doesn't work for you, I'm not sure if "transfixing" is a word, but if it is it might work even better.


If a natural occurring disaster's magnitude induces awe and wonder as well as fear and terror, you could talk about its spellbound effect

Entranced by or as if by a spell; fascinated.

If you require an adjective say, a spellbinding tsunami.

  • Spellbinding would be the adjective for the phenomenon. Spellbound would describe the effect on the beholder. Oct 26, 2014 at 21:41

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