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I've often heard French people, when speaking English, say something is or was "terrible" in a confusing context. For example, the context is often where one would expect them to be giving praise, and "terrific" would make more sense.

Does the word mean the opposite in English and French?! Can it mean either very good or very bad depending on context, and if so which is the more common usage/is there any way to discern the difference from pronunciation or other cues?

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In French, terrible can mean both terrific and awful (or terrible). The first case (terrific) is sort of slang and would not be used in written French but is extensively (or maybe was some years ago) used by young people to say terrific. The second case (awful) is the more common and traditional one and it can be used in written French as well as in spoken French.

To differentiate them, the only clue I can give is use the context or the tone of the voice it is spoken French. A French person would probably not use terrible and say it with a cheerful tone when meaning awful since he/she is aware of the other meaning.

Finally yes, a lot a French people are mixing up the English words terrible and terrific and would in most cases use terrible to mean terrific. Please, excuse us ;)

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    You can also mention than "horrible" in French is a non-ambiguous way to say "terrible" in English... and no need to excuse us, speaking a foreign language is hard. – oli Sep 24 '13 at 4:33
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    I heard once that the « terrific » meaning of « terrible » was first used by Johnny Haliday in his song « Cette fille là, mon vieux, elle est terrible! », which made this meaning widely popular. – Thibault Sep 24 '13 at 11:41
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    In (American) English bad like in the eponymous Michael Jackson's song is an example of opposite meanings depending on context. – jlliagre Sep 29 '13 at 12:36
  • @Thibault I think I read it in "Le Petit Nicolas"...("il a un shoot terrible!") which might predate this song (le petit nicoals was published 1958-1965 and the song is from 1962). Need to check in the books! – JayCe Aug 13 '18 at 19:47
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When I spent a year in France back in the early '70s, everybody was using "terrible" to mean "fantastic," "terrific," "wonderful," and so forth. I can testify to that, but I'm wondering if people in France still use it that way. In my frequent return visits, I would use it in the slang sense, but often wondered if people still understood it that way, or whether I was just showing my age.

  • Welcome! There maybe is an opportunity for a question here so you should ask in a new question. Has that usage changed in the last 50 years, is that still in use with the bit you wrote. Cheers. – personne Jun 19 at 3:19

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