It’s Terrible! (Words that mean ‘bad’)

by Kate Woodford

Credit: Getty
Credit: Getty

Some of you may have read a recent post here on words and phrases used for saying that things are good or great. This week our mood is a little less positive and we’re exploring the language that we use for saying that things are bad.

We’ll start with some very frequent words that can be used to describe most things that are very bad, (‘bad’ in this case meaning generally ‘unpleasant or causing difficulties’). The adjectives awful, dreadful, terrible and appalling are all commonly used for saying that something is very unpleasant. The weather was absolutely awful./I’ve had a dreadful cold./We had a terrible time./The way they treated her was just appalling.

There are some even stronger words too that are used to describe things generally that are extremely bad. The adjectives atrocious and horrendous are both used to emphasize how terrible something is: The roads in the capital are absolutely atrocious./In the prison itself, conditions were horrendous.

Other adjectives also mean ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ but often with the slightly more specific meaning of ‘of bad quality’. The adjective poor is one of these: The acting was pretty poor./We complained about the poor service. In British English, the slightly informal word shocking is also used to mean ‘of very bad quality’: The standard of some of the writing is frankly shocking. Likewise, the words second-rate and, (worse), third-rate are used to complain about bad quality: a second-rate actor /a third-rate football team. The slightly formal word substandard is used for criticising something such as a product or service that is below the usual or necessary standard: There were complaints about substandard housing. A very common noun used with the meaning of ‘something of poor quality’ is rubbish: Think of all the rubbish that you see on TV these days. Meanwhile, the phrase leave a lot to be desired also expresses dissatisfaction with poor quality. Something that leaves a lot to be desired is much worse in quality than you would like: I’m afraid their customer service leaves a lot to be desired.

Again, there are stronger words for describing things that are of bad quality. The adjectives abysmal and (informal) diabolical both emphasize that something is of extremely poor quality: The food was abysmal./Maria’s driving is absolutely diabolical!

In a week or two, we will look at vocabulary that is used to describe more specific qualities of things that we judge to be bad. Do come back!


23 thoughts on “It’s Terrible! (Words that mean ‘bad’)

  1. mima

    Iam very pleased to be subscribed to the site About Words – Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog, realy it’s very interesting.

    1. Kate Woodford

      We’re pleased to hear it! Keep coming back – we’ll be covering lots of topics in the months to come.

  2. Oleg Markin

    I never met a good few of these adjectives: appalling, atrocious, horrendous, abysmal and diabolical. I guess this is because I never read novels in English, so my mood has fallen ‘below baseboards’ now 🙂 Nevertheless, thank you very much!

  3. Sérgio Rodrigues

    I have heard that, in some situations, “awful” could be used with a positive conotation. Really?

    1. Craig Roberts

      “One” may use awful in a phrase such as; “…it was an awfully good performance”, which is the positive conatation you refer to.

    2. Kate Woodford

      Hello Sergio! I’m sorry – I didn’t see your original question. Yes, as Craig says, the adverb ‘awfully’ can be used with an adjective as an intensifier, for example ‘awfully nice/good’ but it sounds very old-fashioned (and posh!) in contemporary English. All the best to you!

  4. Tatiana Balandina

    Thank you, Kate! It is really very informative and absolutely helpful.I’m looking forward to your next article.

  5. Please include slangs in your blog. I am looking for a word that means extremely distasteful conduct as in the phrase “That is so “F I L E” and I am sure that it is not spelled like it is above.

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