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Origins of the word “terrible”

Two examples spring to mind immediately, the first being that in the title:

terrible (bad) and terrific (good)

The other was:

awful (bad) and awesome (good).

That last one is particularly vexing to me. Surely if something with "some" awe is good, something that's "full" of awe would be better, no?

  • Also dupe: “Awesome” vs. “Awful” – Callithumpian May 24 '12 at 3:18
  • Sorry, search engine didn't show those for me. Hmm, not enough rep her to close/delete or even flag for moderator deletion. Mods, please delete this question (or if someone with more rep than I could flag it for a mod, I'd appreciate it). – John Smith May 24 '12 at 3:23
  • 1
    No problem. I flagged it for you. One trick for finding dupes when typing in the title of your question is to type in the key words first. In your case, typing terrific or terrible first should have brought up the relevant questions. – Callithumpian May 24 '12 at 3:31

Actually, there was a time when terrific was used to denote terrifying. The OED marks the modern denotation of "marvelous" as beginning around 1930, so this usage was perhaps coined by the flappers, who were cool, hip, and on the ball. According to the OED, this modern usage, now almost always denoting "marvelous", is a colloquialism.

As for awesome, the modern use you've noted is first recorded in the OED in 1980, which probably indicates that the American hippies coined this particular use during the 60s and 70s. The OED marks this usage as slang, though this is now the most used denotation.

As to why this has happened: English is a living language. This means that new words are still finding their way into the English lexicon, and the denotations and connotations of existing words are still migrating [changing meaning] with time. Compare this with a Latin word--Latin being a "dead" language--the denotation or connotation of which will never change no matter how much time passes.

  • If Latin is a dead language, why is the Port Jackson shark called "Heterodontus portusjacksoni"? :-) – John Smith May 24 '12 at 7:22
  • lol -- I'm not sure how to answer that one. :p – Zahhar May 24 '12 at 7:26

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