Happy Hallowe’en! Today’s a good day to stop and think a moment about the tendency of words for scariness to migrate meaning. This is very obvious in slang, from Michael Jackson’s bad to New England’s wicked. But we have some proper, respectable words with scary origins, too. Consider
terrific - The literal meaning from the Latin roots is, quite simply and obviously “causing terror.” Nowadays that scary meaning has become pretty much archaic. The current usage is “extreme or intense,” and most usually “extremely good.” Think about a sentence you might hear this evening: You’re a terrific zombie! This means “Your zombie costume looks really good,” rather than “Your zombie costume is genuinely terrifying.”
tremendous - The original meaning was “scary,” from the Latin for “trembling.” Now it means “big in a good way, or good in a big way.”
So why do words change meaning this way? In the case of bad and wicked, it’s sudden and deliberate with intent to mark the speaker’s particular linguistic affiliations, while in the case of terrific and tremendous the new meanings were acquired gradually and among the
(somewhat) more mainstream. But both sets of words have an impetus that they share. Speakers are always looking for words with more oomph. Saying “I’m hungry” seems so inadequate, and even “I’m really hungry” isn’t much better. You crave emphasis, you crave words that will get an emotional response. How about “I’m awfully hungry?” dreadfully hungry, frightfully, terribly hungry… So far, so good. You’ve chosen words that express the extreme scariness of your famishment. And then people say they’re awfully tired, and they’re working awfully hard, and they stayed up awfully late, and it’s awfully cold - all situations where awful, dreadful, frightful, and terrible are exaggerations, but at least they make sense. Then after a while someone says they ran awfully fast, and the cake was awfully big, and the book was awfully complicated - an ever broader application, so that the meanings are beginning to shift from scariness to general emphasis. And eventually people find themselves saying that the music was awfully good, the assistance was awfully kind, and kittens are awfully cute. Now our scary adverbs are simply synonymous with very or extremely, and have no particular negative connotation at all, let alone any implication of terror. And when speakers end up using these intensifiers more often in good situations than bad, the transformation is complete and terrific means “excellent.” In the case of terrific, the word entered English as “causing terror” in the mid seventeenth century. The first recorded case of its use as an intensifier was 1809, and the “excellent” meaning is recorded in colloquial use in 1888. Not until the 1930s or 40s did the colloquial usage take over as the primary meaning.
When a word shifts meaning from negative to positive it’s called amelioration. But the real question is not “How could a word change meaning like that?” but “Why do some words do it while others don’t?” I mentioned awfully, and of course that’s based on awful meaning “extremely bad.” But compare that with awesome, meaning “extremely good.” They both derive from awe, which, in the fourteenth century meant “fright, dread.” Because of its use in translations of the Bible, however, it came to mean “dread mixed with veneration” or “fear in a good way.” Awful is the original adjectival form from when awe was purely scary. Awesome was the later form derived once awe had positive connotations. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that it should lose its scariness and become purely good. So let’s take another example. Why is terrific great while terrible is, well, terrible? I have no idea! But I hope you have a terrific Hallowe’en and not a terrible one.
(And don’t forget to come visit me at Roslindale Open Studios this weekend if you’re local.)
[Pictures: Jack-o-lanterns designed and carved by PGN (monster),
AEGN (Gubble the troll),
TPN (three bats), 2014.]