The Etymologist: “You’re Making This Up!”

Faithful readers of The Etymologist will remember that our previous post ended like this:

I hope that, after a few posts, you’ll agree with me that etymology is pretty awesome!

Hm. Is “awesome” really the right word there? Or should I say “fantastic”? What about “amazing,” or “incredible”?

In today’s post, we’ll start to answer those questions by looking at the stories behind some of these very positive words. What are we saying when we call something fantastic, amazing, or great? Based on the etymologies of these words, what we’re really saying is:

“You’re making this up!”

“That blows my mind!”

or

“That’s big (and scary)!”

Let’s look at the words that fit the first category:

“YOU’RE MAKING THIS UP!”

Words: fantastic, fabulous, incredible, unbelievable

Fantastic is the adjective form of “fantasy,” so it literally means “fantasy-ish.” “Fantasy” itself means “imagination” or “something imagined.” So if you say something’s fantastic, you’re saying it sounds like someone imagined it or made it up.

TIP: Today, we almost always use “fantastic” to mean that something sounds too good to be real, but in older books and movies, you’ll often see people use “fantastic” in a more literal sense as “made up” or “disconnected from reality.” For example, in the film The Naked City (1948), when the police accuse a woman of owning a stolen ring, she answers, “But this is fantastic!” She’s not saying this is great news—she’s saying she doesn’t believe their crazy accusation.

Fabulous comes from the Latin fabula, literally a “little story,” which is also the root of “fable.” Like something fantastic, something fabulous is the sort of thing you’d only expect to hear about in a story—not in real life.

“You’re making this up” is another way of saying “I don’t believe you,” and that’s exactly what you’re saying when you call something incredible. This word is made of in (not) + credible (believable)—so when you say that something’s incredible, you mean it’s literally unbelievable. It’s so unlikely that you can’t or won’t believe it.

Coming next: Part 2: “THAT BLOWS MY MIND!”

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