Q From Benny Tiefenbrunner: I am re-reading Little Dorrit, in which Dickens describes a character as terrific, meaning terrifying. When did this word change its meaning to its present sense, which is diametrically opposed to Dickens’s meaning?
A Words often shift in meaning and decay in power through being adopted as mere superlatives. Another example is horrid, which originally meant something so frightful as to make one’s hair stand on end but which — as the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary noted in its gently chiding way a century ago — was then “especially frequent as a feminine term of strong aversion”. I was going to write dreadful instead of frightful but that’s another word which has lost much of its muscle and can often suggest the merely disagreeable instead of evoking dread.
Terrific, as you say, has gone further than either of these by not merely weakening but completely inverting its sense. It started out, around the time of Milton, as the adjective related to terror, “causing terror, terrifying; fitted to terrify; dreadful, terrible, frightful”, as the OED comprehensively puts it.
However, even before Dickens’s time, it had begun to be used for anything merely severe or excessive. A writer in 1809 complained that business was terrific when he meant that he was busy. Another in 1855 described applause as terrific when she wanted to say that it was intense and prolonged. Examples from later in the century mention a terrific explosion, which was powerful but didn’t evoke terror, while a terrific velocity was merely substantial. These senses overlapped for decades and it can sometimes be hard to be sure what was meant — a terrific storm might have presaged calamity or it might just have been exceptional.
The shift from this nineteenth-century sense of excessively large to our current most common one of being great in a positive sense seems to have taken place in the spoken language after 1900. It only began to surface in print in the 1920s:
“No doubt she had a terrific career.” “Terrific! What do you mean by terrific?” “Why, that she was what used to be called a professional beauty, a social ruler, immensely distinguished and smart and all that sort of thing.”
December Love, by Robert Hichens, 1922.
Another early example suggests through its accompanying slang that the word had completed its transformation in the public schools of Britain:
“Thanks awfully,” said Rex. “That’ll be ripping.” “Fine!” said Derek Yardley. “Great! Terrific!”
Young Livingstones, by D G Mackail, 1930. Ripping meant splendid or excellent, as in ripping yarn, a first-rate story (see also ripsnorter).
Today, of course, we can’t use terrific in its original sense but have to use terrifying instead.