terror vs horror

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

"terror" means, "intense, sharp, overmastering fear"

"horror" means, "an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting"

At first glance, there doesn't appear to be much of a difference between the two terms. However, a more careful reading of the definitions reveals the two as separate feelings: "Terror" is a feeling of fear, whereas "horror" is a feeling of pain (albeit a pain brought on by something frightful). Both feelings, though, are overpowering, so there is a similarity.

So how does this happen?

horror => horrific

terror => terrific

If you describe something as "horrific," you're saying that it causes a feeling of horror; but if you describe something as "terrific," you're not saying it causes a feeling of terror--just the opposite: you're saying it's a good thing.

What's the deal?

According to dictionary.com, "terrific" did, at one time, mean something close to "causing terror," but over time that meaning changed:

1667, "frightening," from L. terrificus "causing terror or fear," from terrere "fill with fear" (see terrible) + root of facere "to make" (see factitious). Weakened sensed of "very great, severe" (e.g. terrific headache) appeared 1809; colloquial sense of "excellent" began 1888.

All we can say is that this kind of transientness of meaning is just scary.