adj. Notable for its size, power, or excellence.
adj. Extremely large (in amount, extent, degree, etc.) or great

Tremendous comes to us from the Latin tremendus, meaning “fearful, terrible.” Literally, it means that the described object is “to be trembled at”; the PIE base *tre[s|m], meaning “tremble,” has given rise not only to our modern “to tremble” through the Latin tremere (and hence the origin of “tremendous”), but also “terrible” as well, from terrere (“to inspire fear”). Tremendous and terrible are, therefore, more or less the same words, even though we probably wouldn’t realise it as speakers of Modern English.

Tremendous in the sense of “awful, dreadful, terrible” is a 17th-century construction. It began to take on other meanings—size, for instance, as well as superlatively good—in the early 18th century. In doing so, it lost most of its qualifying characteristics in favor of quantifying ones.

Oddly enough, one of tremendous’s synonyms, enormous, experienced something like this phenomenon as well. The manner in which most of us use it—to denote a massive size—is an old form, dating from the mid-16th century, from the Latin enormis (read: not normal); in that respect the word has been fairly stable. Prior to that, however, the word referred to outrageousness or wickedness, and that sense is still retained in the word “enormity,” which I don’t hesitate to note has fallen into disuse. As often as not, when someone uses the word “enormity” they are referring to size.

There was a notable shift in the early-to-mid-19th century in the usage of these words; they lost much of their connotations and became mere intensifiers. Consider “awful,” which is literally that which inspires “awe,” the aforementioned “tremendous,” and “terribly” in its adjective form. Even “terrific,” which is another Latinate word which originally meant “to inspire terror,” has become either a positive phrase like tremendous, or a general purpose intensifier.

Our other “size” words are often more recent constructions or have less interesting histories.. Gigantic is a straightforward derivation of “giant,” though it looks more like the Latin gagantem (gagas is “giant”). Humongous is nonsense word from the 1960s which mixes “huge” and “monstrous.” “Ginormous” (from “gigantic” and “enormous”), a very recently-popular construction, attests to this same phenomenon.

Ironically enough, our simplest words for size are the most mysterious. “Huge” is from Old French ahuge, whose origins are lost to us; “big” is a 13/14th-century word from Northern England, with potentially Scandanavian but otherwise unknown etymology. “Large,” which is a straightfoward Latinate word originally meaning “bountiful” gained its alternate sense of size around this same point.

§4776 · December 16, 2009 · Tags: , , ·

3 Comments to “Wednesday’s Word: tremendous”

  1. Brady says:

    What do you use to do your research? Did you score a subscription to the OED online through USF?

  2. Ben says:

    One of my best resources is Etymology Online. I also use Pokorny’s Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch for the [P]IE stuff, and various and sundry other resources where I can find them.

  3. Conor says:

    I think the existence of Etymology Online is a wonderful thing for humanity. I’ve spent hours there. Of course I’ve had similar episodes meandering across the fields of Wikipedia, but it happens much more often with EO for me.

Leave a Reply