Terrible is good!

One of the interesting things about learning French with native speakers all around me is their use of words that they never teach you at school. Take terrible for example. It has the same meaning as the English word, but is pronounced “tair-ree-ble”. However, terrible can also mean good. I know that in English we’ve got slang words for good such as “phat” and “cool” but they don’t mean the opposite of good.

If, for example, someone says to me that they’ve been given a pay rise, I could say: “Ah bon? C’est terrible. (“Oh really? That’s great”). I’m still loathe to use such a phrase when someone says they have a new haircut. However, it all goes downhill from there. Take the following phrases:

C’est pas terrible” (“It’s not good”)

C’est pas si terrible” (“It’s not so bad”)

That’s right, if it’s not hard enough to learn that a negative word means a positive, you then have to remember that adding in a “pas” which basically means “not” changes the phrase again to mean it’s not good, and then including just two extra letters, “si“, flips the meaning yet again from negative to positive. Confused? Join the club.

So, when someone uses a phrase with “terrible” in it, make sure you listen very, very closely. Or do as I do: raise your eyebrows, purse your lips and make a short “mm” sound. Works every time, even if I have no idea what’s going on.

About

I’m a technical author, journalist and writer from Australia who has been living in Europe since 2000 and exploring the world from there. My passions are writing, snow sports and travel.

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8 comments on “Terrible is good!
  1. Penny says:

    Yep, I completely avoid using the word terrible! Same as I will not use either baiser or baisser, in case I manage to say the wrong thing 😉

  2. Wendy says:

    Penny I’m there with you on the baisser thing – it could go very wrong…

  3. Haley says:

    I so know what you mean!
    A friend bought me an italian cook book and I quote:
    “Infornate i filetti di pollo finche’ non e’ ben cotto”
    Literally:
    “Put the chicken in the oven until it is not cooked”
    What?!
    So, take it out right away before it can cook?
    It turns out “finche’ non” (until it’s not) is the same as “finche’ (until it is). The addition of the negative makes no difference at all.
    Who made up these rules?

  4. wendy c’est terrible ce que tu dis !
    tu veux dire que le français est super inexplicable?

    🙂

    terrible!

  5. I never use the word baisser (to lower) or baiser. Never.

  6. Tom Long says:

    I asked my colleagues about this, and consulted a dictionary. I think “terrific” is a good translation for the current usage of “terrible”. Otherwise it’s just another faux ami…

    And “réduire”. Always réduire.

  7. Ceri Deparis says:

    And my mother-in-law who always insists on asking my daughter for a little “baiser” when she arrives – I never know where to look 😉

  8. Emily says:

    When I tell my students that “terrible” is ALWAYS negative in English & “terrific” always positive, they raise their eyebrows & look at me as if I’m crazy. Sigh.

About me

Wendy Hollands writer in Annecy, France

I'm an experienced technical writer based in the French Alps. I enjoy learning French language nuances, winter sports and travel. Drop by wendyhollands.com, my other site.

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