Possible Duplicate:
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?

  • 4
    I think you meant for your question title to read "what gave 'terrific' a positive connotation", then. Aug 19, 2011 at 20:32
  • 2
    And by the same token, why does awful mean bad?
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Aug 19, 2011 at 20:50
  • 1
    While this is indeed a duplicate (of several other questions, actually), at least it was asked with flair!
    – John Y
    Aug 20, 2011 at 2:17
  • Well, now that the picture is gone and replaced by (amazingly boring) verbiage, my previous comment no longer holds. :( (Well, the original asker did ask it with flair, but the question as shown on this site no longer reflects that.)
    – John Y
    Aug 23, 2011 at 4:33
  • 1
    @John Y Here you go. i.stack.imgur.com/5lRSd.jpg
    – Renan
    Aug 24, 2011 at 15:42

1 Answer 1


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".

  • 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. Aug 19, 2011 at 21:45
  • @Malvolio Edited to use "luxury" instead. I was just pulling examples of semantic change, but not the right ones
    – user10893
    Aug 19, 2011 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, 2011 at 13:50
  • @Malvolio As I understand it, amelioration in this context refers to movement from a negative connotation to a positive connotation. If there was some change in connotation with "awful" as you are suggesting, I'm not sure it would be called amelioration, since the change would be from a positive connotation to a negative one. Maybe there is another term for that opposite movement? Jul 14, 2017 at 15:16
  • @ZubinMukerjee -- exactly my point. "Awful" started out positive, meaning "awe-inspiring", and then declined sharply (the opposite of amelioration is "perjoration"). It has ameliorated a little lately. For some reason, the adverb form either never perjorated, or ameliorated before I was born, because if you say something is "awfully nice", you mean that it is very nice indeed. Jul 14, 2017 at 22:13

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