By Tom Anderson.
Good! Great! Awesome! Outstanding! Amazing!
Awful, amusing, and artificial.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
In a previous article, I wrote about the danger of anachronisms when writing Alternate History (AH) fiction, or indeed conventional period historical fiction. Sometimes these can be obvious, but other times they can be far more subtle. In this and later articles I’m going to be discussing some examples of words which are a minefield for the writer in how their meanings have changed over time – whether subtly or dramatically.
A classic example of this is the alleged quote by King Charles II that Sir Christopher Wren’s design for St Paul’s Cathedral was ‘awful, amusing, and artificial’, and meant all three of those words as praise. Today, we are more minded to be sceptical of these oft-repeated quotes, and based on modern investigations, it appears that while some of those words were used at the time when the design was selected, it was not the King who said them or in that order. Nonetheless, the point still stands. In the 1600s, ‘awful’ meant ‘awe-full’, ie, ‘awe-inspiring’. It was also synonymous with ‘awesome’, whereas today ‘awful’ and ‘awesome’ are considered antonymous, and neither are commonly used in connection with a sensation of awe; they are merely generic positive and negative exclamations or adjectives. Nowadays we have to awkwardly construct a new term, ‘awe-inspiring’, to recapture the original meaning.
This represents a general process of language in which terms relating to quite specific sensations are gradually degraded into such generic terms, more usually for positives and less commonly for negatives. Here are some examples of degradation to the positive.
Originally meant ‘imaginary, only possible in fantasy, not believable.’ Calling something ‘a fantastic story’ would mean one did not find it believable. Using ‘fantastic’ in the adjectival form to mean ‘of fantasy’ is still very occasionally used by people talking about fantasy fiction. For example, Harry Turtledove wrote a few books, starting with Marching Through Peachtree, which reimagine the American Civil War set in a fantasy world, and that series is sometimes referred to as Fantastic Civil War – which may give the wrong mental image for people who think ‘fantastic’ only means ‘extraordinarily good or great’. In fact, trying to define that everyday meaning is quite difficult, because almost every synonym I can think of also used to have a more specific meaning, like...
Literally ‘of fables’, similarly meaning something that sounds like it comes from a fictional story, yet today has, again, mostly come to mean good or great in particular contexts. A less common synonym of thos meaning is...
Something that excites wonder, in the same way that something awful or awesome excites awe. ‘Wondrous’ is sometimes used today to try to recapture the original meaning, like ‘awe-inspiring’, although it’s not a new word and goes back to Shakespeare.
Occasionally still seen in its original meaning of ‘not credible’ or ‘unbelievable’; ie, saying ‘that story you told was incredible!’ would have meant: “You’re a liar”, not: “You’re a good storyteller.” More usually today simply used as an intensifier, implying scale rather positivity (‘incredible prices’ could mean they’re suprisingly high or low; in modern English, one can reasonably describe a nuclear weapon as incredibly destructive, but not wonderfully or fabulously destructive). US comics (in particular Marvel) may be partly responsible for the deterioration of meaning in adjectives like this, as terms derived from the 1950s period of science fiction and horror comic dominance meaning literally ‘unbelievable’ were later applied to superheroes where they came to mean more generically ‘impressive’. The obvious example is The Incredible Hulk, the only case where the adjective has attached itself permanently to the character’s name in pop culture, whereas nobody routinely refers to The Amazing Spider-Man or The Uncanny X-Men.
Not that commonly used anymore, but it originally meant: ‘causing a sense of terror’, in the same way that ‘awesome’ meant ‘instilling a sense of awe’. Nowadays we would have to use a newer word like ‘terrorising’ (only about a century old) to carry that meaning. ‘Terrific’ is an unusual case because in the eighteenth century, people began to use it similarly to ‘incredible’ (in the sense that it meant great or impressive, but not necessarily positive) while in the nineteenth century it began to shift towards meaning generically positive. Both senses are not seen that much now, but one can still occasionally find ‘a terrific explosion destroyed the orphanage’ as well as ‘a terrific tennis serve delighted the crowd’.
This originally meant to inspire fear or terror (it comes from a related root to the word ‘tremble’). Like ‘incredible’, it eventually simply came to mean large and impressive in scale, with slightly positive connotations (as used extensively by former US President Donald Trump in speeches). Except, that is, on the SLP forum, where an obscure running joke uses ‘tremendous’ negatively due to a historical association with the ignore function. This illustrates how language is still evolving today!
Excellent and Outstanding.
These have not been degraded so much, and are still generally understood to mean ‘excels’ in a field (ie, outpaces expectations) and ‘stands out’ in that field. A piece of schoolwork which is excellent or outstanding is not merely good, but exceptionally so. One related issue with the word ‘excel’ is its use for a well-known computer program, which can sometimes confuse matters – I’ll be talking about examples like this in a subsequent article.
And here are a few examples of the lesser-seen degradations to generically negative:
Was originally synonymous with ‘terrific’, meaning to instil terror or impress another. ‘Ivan the Terrible’, Tsar of Russia, was described as such because he was intimidating, dangerous, and effective. This can be misleading, because ‘terrible’ has since degraded in meaning to mean negative in the sense of ‘lousy, poor-quality’. Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island, published in 1883, has a group of admirers describe an impressive sailor as ‘the sort of man that made England terrible at sea’, ie, England terrorises other nations with the high quality of her naval personnel, but a modern reading would take the opposite meaning. Some have suggested that Tsar Ivan’s cognomen, ‘Grozny’ in Russian, should nowadays be translated as ‘Ivan the Formidable’.
Ivan the Terrific.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
A subtler one, but it was historically more used to mean ‘properly sceptical’, whereas nowadays it tends to be used with connotations like ‘baffled in a slightly panocked way that’s amusing to onlookers’. Interestingly, the opposite term ‘credulous’ has also retained its negative meaning of ‘gullible’, so apparently one can’t win.
‘Dread’, like ‘terror’, originally carried connotations more of generally stirring and impressing the heart rather than being inherently negative. King James VI and I was addressed as ‘Dread Monarch’, to his approval. ‘Dreadful’ became more negative in tone not that many years later, but still carried the meaning of stirring the heart to horror rather than just being generically bad. One name in Tolkien’s Silmarillion is translated as ‘the Valley of Dreadful Death’, intending to imply the fear it inspires in visitors, but today that can merely sound like a melodramatic adjective.
This used to mean ‘outstanding’ and translates from the Latin with a very similar literal meaning. It came to take on its modern negative sense apparently due to sarcasm in sixteenth century usage.
I’ve focused on these adjectives in this article, but there is plenty more material to cover. What is remarkable is that the language tends to organically invent replacements when formerly specific words are lost to generic meaning. For example, one wonders what will come about to replace ‘literally’ now that the dictionaries have surrendered and allow people to use it simply to mean ‘very’. I also have a theory that the terms ‘crazy’, ‘insane’, and ‘wild’ are in the process of becoming generically ‘extraordinary’ adjectives in US English at present.
What are the lessons for writing AH and standard history? Well, I would not worry too much about trying to represent contemporary language too much, precisely because of the prospect of this kind of confusion from changing meanings. Neal Stephenson, in his Baroque Cycle, is one example of how to give one’s language a certain sense of archaicism without going overboard; he uses the word ‘divers’ (diverse) A LOT in a sense more varied (ironically) than its modern term. This was indeed a popular word in the 1600s, but not to the extent he uses it, perhaps – but the point is that this is reminding the reader that the scenes described in the prose are not in the present day, without forcing the reader to learn lots of words with different meanings.
Next time, we’ll be looking at three-thousand-year-old cars and disappearing apostrophes, as I consider how terms for technologies can be less set in stone than we might think.
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Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:
Look To The West (5 book series)
N'Oublions Jamais (Anthology)