The Etymologist: “That’s Big (and Scary)!”

In our previous posts, we talked about words like “fantastic” and “amazing.” If you want to say something is too good to be true, you might call it “fantastic.” If you want to say it’s hard to wrap your mind around, you might call it “amazing.”

But what should you say if you want to tell people that something is so special, it makes you feel small by comparison? What if you want to say:

“THAT’S BIG (AND SCARY)!”

Words: great, awesome, terrific

Probably the simplest word on this list is great, which literally means “big.” In fact, almost every word for “big” has turned into slang for “very good”: think of grand (“The soirée was simply grand, my dear”) or huge (“Dude, you got the promotion? That’s huge!”).

What makes big things so special? It might be that they seem powerful or even awesome. Something awesome is awe-inspiring: you respect it, fear it, feel small in front of it. The hymn “Our God is an awesome God” isn’t saying that God is super cool; it’s saying that God is powerful, in a way that’s both scary and comforting.

Terrific takes that scariness and runs with it. “Terrific” sounds like “terrifying” and “terrible,” and that’s not a coincidence: all of these words are related to “terror.” Something terrific is literally terror-inducing. So why do we now use “terrific” to mean that something’s really good? Is it because scary things are powerful, and we respect power?

That’s the sort of question that makes studying etymology so compelling—the way that words change meanings tells us something about ourselves.

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