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'Horrific' And 'Surreal': The Words We Use To Bear Witness

Visitors paid their respects at a makeshift memorial on Boylston Street on April 20, near the scene of the Boston Marathon bombings.
Timothy A. Clary
AFP/Getty Images
Visitors paid their respects at a makeshift memorial on Boylston Street on April 20, near the scene of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Mass shootings, bus crashes, tornadoes, terrorist attacks — we've gotten adept at talking about these things. Act of God or act of man, they're all horrific. At least that was the word you kept hearing from politicians and newscasters describing the Boston bombings and the explosion at the fertilizer plant in Texas.

That may not strike you as surprising — the events were horrific, weren't they? But it's actually a new way of describing things. "Horrific" is an old word; it turns up in Thackeray and Melville. But until recent times it was rare and literary. It didn't start to take off until a few decades ago, and it's been on a tear ever since — 10 times as common now as it was in 1970. Words sometimes catch on that way, like a pair of boots you've had in the back of the closet for years until one morning you pull them out and start wearing them every day.

But why now? I wondered if it had to do with the bleaching of "horrible." Milton used "horrible" for the dungeons of hell; now we use it for bad hairdos. But "horrific" doesn't mean the same thing as "horrible" or "horrifying" — it's not just a fancy word for "scary." The way it's used now, "horrific" doesn't describe events themselves so much as the reaction they evoke. Horrific sights are the ones that transfix and repel us at the same time. I asked a friend what he thought the word meant, and he sent me a link to a photo that appeared last month after the University of Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware suffered a gruesome leg fracture during an NCAA game. It showed three of his teammates at courtside. The one in the middle had his arms around the other two and was gaping at the injury in wide-eyed horror. The one on his right had turned away, his face twisted in anguish. The one on his left was staring ashenly up into space. Those are the three faces of the horrific: We gawk, pull back convulsively, and finally turn away shaken.

Those are the three faces of the horrific: We gawk, pull back convulsively, and finally turn away shaken."

But that's an extreme example. Most of the scenes we call horrific aren't immediate; they come to us remotely via TV or the Internet. And they're rarely as gut-wrenching as that one. The media were pretty circumspect about showing the most graphic pictures of the Boston carnage, just as they were after Sept. 11. Of course there was no shortage of websites eager to oblige the aficionados — this is the age, after all, that has enriched the English language with the term "gore porn." But most of us found grist enough for our imaginations in the clips of the explosions and the blood-spattered sidewalks, not to mention the frequent intonations of the phrase "body parts."

Imagination plays a big part here. The horrific feeds on glimpses and aftermaths: the image of a column of smoke, a bloody sidewalk, a devastated house, repeated incessantly. And like most people I keep watching, switching from one channel and website to the next in the hope of seeing more. I can't really tell if the repeated images desensitize me or re-sensitize me to violence — probably both, one after the other, every time the pictures go by.

That's how we've learned to take this in. Think of the famously horrific images of the past half-century — the Oswald shooting, Challenger, the twin towers. It goes without saying that everybody has seen them, but is there anybody who has only seen them once?

"Horrific" belongs to television. The word started to catch on at the moment when the medium realized that audiences would watch raptly as they looped the same unsettling images, and its popularity grew along with cable news. "Horrific" turns up more on TV news than in newspapers, and far more than in fiction or in the movies. Behind "horrific" is the realization: "Oh my God, this really happened."

There was another word that kept appearing in the stories about Boston and Texas, "surreal." That one didn't come from the public figures and commentators the way horrific did — as Ben Zimmer pointed out in The Boston Globe, it bubbled up from the firsthand reports of the witnesses on the scene. You could think of the two words as bookends. The things we see as horrific have an indisputable realness that we alternately confront and shrink away from. While "surreal" is the word we reach for when reality threatens to overwhelm us, till it takes on what Merriam-Webster defines as the "intense irrational reality of a dream." Though in these settings, it's more often another kind of unreality that comes to mind. "It was surreal," people kept saying, "like a scene in a movie."

As it happens, that's also new way of talking. "Surreal" was a bit of arty jargon until it too became popular around 1970 or so. That initially had a lot to do with the counterculture — the word shows up a lot more frequently in Rolling Stone than on CBS News. But the particular surrealism of disaster scenes had another source. In her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag noted how often the words "surreal" and "movie" were coupled in eyewitness accounts of the Sept. 11 attacks — the result, she said, after four decades of big-budget disaster films. Who needs "the irrational reality of a dream" when you have The Towering Inferno?

We have different ways of confronting these ghastly events: as horrific or as surreal, as spectators gaping at reality or as eyewitnesses dissociating from it, as television or as a movie. But always through a screen.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Geoff Nunberg
Geoff Nunberg is the linguist contributor on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.