In almost any reference I look, the adjective graphic refers to:

producing very clear and detailed mental images:

as in...

She described her operation in the most graphic detail.

However, on almost any given news program in the US, it is common to hear the anchor warning...

"...and we warn you, the following images are very graphic"

and what follows is usually disturbing: broken, bleeding bodies being pulled from bombed out buildings, mothers weeping in anguish, blood, gore and general mayhem.

Is the adjective being mis-used, or is it acquiring a new usage?

  • Are not very clear and detailed images of accidents and so forth properly called graphic? Some people may find such detail disturbing. Nov 25, 2016 at 20:55
  • @AlanCarmack I would expect all news images to be detailed. So why would violent ones be more graphic than any other image? Nov 25, 2016 at 21:04
  • Probably because people love details about violence and sex?
    – user66974
    Nov 25, 2016 at 21:05
  • 1
    It's not a "new" meaning -- it's been around for decades. If you look at the Ngram for "quite graphic" you see a steady rise in the use of the term since 1940. Not all of the uses are in this sense (few before 1940 are) but the trend is there. And if you look at some of the earlier references you can see how this idiomatic use developed.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 25, 2016 at 21:07
  • 1
    Possible duplicate - english.stackexchange.com/questions/302507/…
    – Dan
    Nov 25, 2016 at 23:53

1 Answer 1


It appears to be an extension of its literal meaning. The OLD cites the meaning as a synonym of "vivid" as its second usage:

  • (of descriptions, etc.) very clear and full of details, especially about something unpleasant (synonym vivid)

    • a graphic account/description of a battle He kept telling us about his operation, in the most graphic detail. This is a very graphic account of life in Victorian England.

As explained by vocabulary.com the figurative usage of graphic is generally used to refer to images related to strong issues like violence and sex:

  • Something graphic is visual. Graphic design is made of visual elements. A graphic novel tells its story with pictures. And a story that is too graphic is too good at showing you things that are, for example, shocking or violent.

  • Derived from the Greek graphikos, meaning "drawn" or "written," graphic shows up often before words such as design or art. There's debate over whether Norman Rockwell was a painter or just a graphic artist. In certain cases, usually involving loaded issues such as violence or sex, graphic means overly clear in a visual way. Gruesome slasher movies could be too graphic for some viewers, leaving them feeling sick to their stomachs.

The figurative usage of graphic is quite old, the following usage example is from the System of Christian Rhetoric: 1873:

  • The common reservation here made is that we should not describe the sins we reprehend in too graphic and lively language, for fear we may either give lessons in vice or show that we are but too well acquainted with it. " Certain phrases and ...
  • My printed copy (fourth edition) of the OLD does not have this extended usage (especially about something unpleasant) , so I guess this is what I was asking: Is the word acquiring a new meaning? Vocabulary.com I am not familiar with. Nov 25, 2016 at 21:12
  • 1
    Your edit seems to refer more to the literal, rather than figurative meaning: "clear and detailed". Nov 25, 2016 at 21:27

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