Why Does “Terrible” Mean Bad and “Terrific” Mean Good?

Terrible and terrific are both formed off the same root: terror. Both started out a few hundred years ago with the meaning of terror-inducing. But terrific took a strange turn at the beginning of the 20th century and ended up meaning really great, not terrible or terror-inducing at all.

This happened through a slow reshaping of the connections and connotations of terrific. First it acquired the sense, not just of terror-inducing but of general intensity. You could talk about a “terrific clamor,” meaning a whole lot of clamor. This was a bit of hyperbole—“so much noise it was terror-inducing!”—that eventually got reduced to a general sense of “more intense than usual.” Once a word like that gets established as a general intensifier, it may also be applied to positive experiences—terrific beauty, terrific joy—and from there the jump to a fully positive “terrific!” isn’t so unexpected. The same thing happened to the word tremendous (“causing one to tremble in fear”). It happened to formidable (fear-inducing) too, but only in French, where it means “really great!” It hasn’t quite reached that stage in English, but it has acquired positive intensifier status (“a formidable talent”).

The path from fear to happy enthusiasm isn’t an inevitable one. Awful also started as a fear word—“awe” used to have much stronger connotations of quaking with fear before powerful forces—and came to be a general intensifier (“that pie was awful good!”), but it hasn’t crossed over to the happy side. On the other hand, its close relative, “awesome,” did make the jump.

The fully positive “awesome,” a child of the '80s, is a relatively recent innovation. It began as slang, with a dash of irony or sarcasm to it. That seems to be the crucial ingredient in these crossover words. The positive “terrific” dates to the slang-heavy flapper era, where “killer” also became a playful positive. “Egregious,” a word that made the opposite crossing from positive to negative (it used to mean notable, excellent), also appears to have arisen from an ironic use. And we have plenty of very recent examples of slang crossover (Sick! Ill! Wicked! Bad!).

Crossover words are a tremendous testament to our awesome ability to shape the language as we use it. To master our fears. To take our terror and use it to build something terrific.

Presidents Day vs. President's Day vs. Presidents' Day: Which One Is It?

iStock
iStock

Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" implies that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Full vs. Queen Mattress: What's the Difference?

iStock.com/IPGGutenbergUKLtd
iStock.com/IPGGutenbergUKLtd

If you’re in the market for a new mattress this Presidents Day weekend (the holiday is traditionally a big one for mattress retailers), one of the first decisions you’ll need to make is regarding size. Most people know a king mattress offers the most real estate, but the difference between a full-sized mattress and a queen-sized one provokes more curiosity. Is it strictly a matter of width, or are depth and length factors? Is there a recommended amount of space for each slumbering occupant?

Fortunately, mattress manufacturers have made things easier by adhering to a common set of dimensions, which are sized as follows:

Crib: 27 inches wide by 52 inches long

Twin: 38 inches wide by 75 inches long

Full: 53 inches wide by 75 inches long

Queen: 60 inches wide by 80 inches long

King: 76 inches wide by 80 inches long

Depth can vary across styles. And while you can find some outliers—there’s a twin XL, which adds 5 inches to the length of a standard twin, or a California king, which subtracts 4 inches from the width and adds it to the length—the four adult sizes listed above are typically the most common, with the queen being the most popular. It's 7 inches wider than a full (sometimes called a “double”) mattress and 5 inches longer.

In the 1940s, consumers didn’t have as many options. Most people bought either a twin or full mattress. But in the 1950s, a post-war economy boost and a growing average height for Americans contributed to an increasing demand for larger bedding.

Still, outsized beds were a novelty and took some time to fully catch on. Today, bigger is usually better. If your bed is intended for a co-sleeping arrangement with a partner, chances are you’ll be looking at a queen. A full mattress leaves each occupant only 26.5 inches of width, which is actually slightly narrower than a crib mattress intended for babies and toddlers. A queen offers 30 inches, which is more generous but still well below the space provided by a person sleeping alone in a twin or full. For maximum couple comfort, you might want to consider a king, which is essentially like two twin beds being pushed together.

Your preference could be limited by the size of your bedroom—you might not be able to fit a nightstand on each side of a wider bed, for example—and whether you’ll have an issue getting a larger mattress up stairs and/or around tricky corners. Your purchase will also come down to a laundry list of options like material and firmness, but knowing which size you want helps narrow down your choices.

One lingering mystery remains: Why do we tend to shop for mattresses on Presidents Day weekend? One reason could be time. The three-day weekend is one of the first extended breaks since the December holidays, giving people an opportunity to trial different mattress types and deliberate with a partner. Shopping Saturday and Sunday allows people to sleep on it before making a decision.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER