If you look at terrific, the origin is rather obvious. The form, or morphology, of the word gives it away, although from its meaning you would never guess where it comes from. Terrific is from the Latin terrificus, meaning frightening. Despite it coming from classical Latin, terrific doesn’t enter English use until the early modern era. The first writer known to use it is John Milton in his 1667 Paradise Lost. Milton uses it in the sense of frightening as he describes the creation and lists many of the animals that God has created:
The Serpent suttl’st Beast of all the field,
Of huge extent somtimes, with brazen Eyes
And hairie Main terrific, though to thee
Not noxious, but obedient at thy call. (7.495–98)
A serpent with a hairy mane? One would think that Milton wasn’t a very good zoologist, but this line is probably an allusion to Virgil and the Aeneid, the epic poem about the founding of Rome, which describes the two serpents which devour the priest Laocoön and his two sons as having iubaeque sanguineae superant undas (and blood-red crests that top the waves, 2.206–07). We don’t see this “frightening” sense of terrific much anymore; the modern sense has scared it away.
The modern sense of terrific meaning great or marvelous is a much more recent development. In the mid-eighteenth century the word began to be used to mean large or excessive. In a 1743 translation of Horace’s odes, Matthew Tower described the giant Porphryion as “of terrific size,” which could be interpreted as meaning terrifying and awe-inspiring and also as of great size. And within a few decades in his 1798 satirical poem The Literary Census, Thomas Dutton could mean only of great size when he writes of pamphleteer William Cobbett, “I am struck with admiration at the terrific sublimity of his genius.”
By the latter half of the nineteenth century, this sense of great size had come to mean simply great or excellent. An 1871 advertisement in the Athenaeum magazine could say:
The last lines of the first ballad are simply terrific,—something entirely different to what any English author would dream of, much less put on paper.
And by the next century Denis Mackail’s 1930 novel The Young Livingstones could contain this exchange:
“Thanks awfully,” said Rex. “That’ll be ripping.”
“Fine!” said Derek Yardley. “Great! Terrific!”
In the space of three-hundred years, terrific had moved from a Latinate description of awe-inspiring terror with allusions to Virgil to become a rippingly informal word.
“terrific, adj. and n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, September 2011.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton