When the “bad” meanings of words drive out the “good” meanings

Atomic Flyswatters

In casual speech, there is a tendency to overstatement, and unfortunately the tendency carries over to writing….The tendency is to use powerful words to convey quite moderate meanings, to unleash atomic weapons to kill flies….

In speech, where this kind of misuse is more common than in writing, we use the strongest words of the language with abandon. A play is terrific (no idea of terror) or it is dreadful (no idea of dread), a restaurant is fantastic (no idea of unreality) or it is horrible (no idea of horror). The trouble with this practice is that the “bad” meanings of words tend to drive out the “good” meanings. It’s enough to make strong words weak.

The dilution has gone so far that many of the powerful words have now become mere intensives, so that they appear in such contradictory contexts as “awfully good” and “terribly nice.” It is doubtful whether the misusers of these words have ever paused to think what the words mean. The suggestion here is that they do so.

To rise an alarm, the following list, surely incomplete, of words often used as atomic flyswatters is offered for examination: adorable, awful, colossal, disgusting, divine, dreadful, fabulous, fantastic, fearful, frightful, great, horrible, sensations, stunning, terrible, terrific, weird.

—From The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage, by Theodore M. Bernstein, published in 1965 by Atheneum. Bernstein was the assistant managing editor of the New York Times.

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