The horribly horrible horrific horrifying horrid word horror

What’s the difference between “horrible” and “horrifying”? It’s a simple question posed to me by a friend in the process of editing her novel. It set me off on a tangent, a fun exploration of horror, and all it’s inflections.

“horrible” vs “horrifying”

Writers tend to quibble over small details, such as the choice between the words “horrible” and “horrifying”. Should they not have the same meaning? They both share the root word “horror”. Yet some subtelty dictates that we use, for example, “horrible” to describe an unpalatable lunch, yet use “horrifying” to describe a macabre crime scene.

The dictionaries I consulted cared not for my qualms of correctness. They simply listed various definitions, antique and modern, with little concern over how I might actually use these words. I’ll have to draw from my ever reliable personal experiences.

“horrible” seems to have lost all association with the root word “horror”. It simply means something really bad now. Having a horrible lunch doesn’t mean we were overcome with horror.

“horrifying” however seems to be more extreme, implying something is actively causing a sense of horror in the observer. This actually makes sense as it’s derived from the verb form of the word “horrify”. We tend to expect some kind of action when there’s a verb form involved (it is actually just the present continuous form of the verb).
A horrifying crime scene is one that might make us cringe in repulsion. We might also call something “mortifying” or “petrifying” in the same sense.

Good. That clears it up. We’ll just cleverly ignore the words horrific and horrid for now.

“terrible” vs “terrifying”

This pattern is found also in the words “terrible” and “terrifying”. They have the same subtle distinction in meaning. The root word “terror”, and its inflections, however, have deviated significantly.

A “terrorist” used to be somebody who instilled terror in the general public via unconventional warfare. Thanks to politicians, the aspect of “terror” no longer plays any role in labelling someone a “terrorist”. Though they, and I’ll leave this ambiguous as to whether I mean the “terrorist” or the politicain, are likely “terrible” people, since that word has also lost the “terror” inspiring aspect.

Let’s come back to that “horrific” word I skipped. The “…ic” is a common suffix changing a noun, or verb, into an adjective. “specify” becomes “specific”, “honour” becomes “honourific”, “acid” becomes “acidic”, “center” becomes “centric”. So naturally “horror” becomes “horrific”. These inflections all retain the basic meaning as an adjective.

Along comes “terror” and “terrific”. These two words mean very different things in modern use. A “terrific” lunch is very much different than a “terrifying” lunch. Though I suppose if you’re a horror aficionado, a “terrifying” movie could indeed be a “terrific” one.

Semantic change

How did this happen? The word “terrific” seems to have undergone two significant shifts in meaning. Thinking a bit abstractly, it’s not too hard to understand how each shift happened.

  • the original meaning of causing terror (terrifying): A terrific ghoul attacked me.
  • extreme or intense (since terrifying things tend to be intense): The ghoul had a terrific scream.
  • extremely or intensely good (we keep the intense aspect and limit ourselves to good things): The ghoul turned out to be a terrific dancer.

This semantic change is know as amelioration: when a word implying something negative becomes positive. This process can happen on the inflections of words independent of their roots. Similar changes happened to “nice” and “geek”, and “tremendous” which has also deviated in meaning from it’s inflections “tremour” and “trembling”.

Far more common is pejoration, when the meaning becomes something more negative. The word “awful” is no longer something that inspire “awe”. Curiously, it’s other inflection “awesome” does retain that meaning. Again, semantic change cares little for preserving the value of root words.

“horrid”

“Horror” also has the inflection “horrid”, though we don’t have the equivalent “terrid”. We do have the word “putrid”, which also has “putrefy”, yet lacks “putrific” and “putrible”. The root “stupor” gave us both “stupefy” and “stupid”, yet sadly we have no “stupific”.

The words “liquor” and “liquid” are another pair that show a divergence in meaning. We also have the “liquify” inflection, which rather mundanely just means to turn into a “liquid”, not into “liquor”.

Interesting though is that I can’t find any word that shares all the inflections that “horror” has: “horrify”, “horrific”, “horrid”, “horrible”, “horrendous”. Perhaps horrifyingly it’s a horrendous testament to horrid English culture over the horrible years. Oh the horror!

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