- September 29, 2009
- Posted by: Madrigal Admin
- Category: Word of the Week Blog
What is an intensifier?
Fantastic, marvellous (US marvelous) and tremendous are three of modern English’s great intensifiers. There are many intensifiers in English (for example: fairly, quite, rather, so, too, very). They are adjectives or adverbs that heighten (or lessen) the meaning of a word or phrase:
- Mr Black is quite important.
- Scott is very late.
- Grant is too clever.
Fantastic, marvellous and tremendous
But my big three, the super-intensifiers, are fantastic, marvellous and tremendous. There are quite a few more big ones such as wonderful and miraculous but they share their meaning with marvellous. There are others of course, such as extraordinarily, extremely.
These intensifiers, although they serve to magnify meaning, still retain vestiges of their original meanings, which you must understand when you use them. The original meanings became less literal and more metaphorical. Then, perhaps, the words became quantifiers where they simply meant very big amounts of something and then they lost any meaning at all. Here are some notable quotes that show a range of meanings:
John Betjeman (British poet 1906-1984)
And is it true? And is it true, / This most tremendous tale of all, / Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue, / A Baby in an ox’s stall?
Franklin P. Jones (an American businessman 1887-1929) said:
Experience is that marvelous thing that enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.
Jim Morrison (American singer and song-writer 1943-1971) said:
Those first few songs I wrote, I was taking notes at a fantastic rock concert going on in my head.
Tremendous has two main meanings: is extremely large in amount, extent, or degree; enormous; or capable of making one tremble; terrible. It also, of course, has an important role as an intensifier as Betjeman uses it here. In his usage from a poem of the 1950s he means neither a large tale nor a trembling one. He is using tremendous solely as an intensifier – it has lost its real meaning.
Marvellous, was once synonymous with miraculous and wonderful in referring to the creations of God. According to most dictionaries, marvellous has several meanings (here according to the Macquarie Dictionary): to excite wonder, surprising, extraordinary; excellent, superb; and improbable or incredible.
The use of marvellous in the quote from Jones is in the role of intensifier but it still hints at a mix of the literal meaning of marvellous with an ironic twist.
Morrison’s use of fantastic in fantastic rock concert, is the most precise use of any of the words. Fantastic, has been around in English since the 14th century and has maintained its original meaning of existing only in imagination, (originally from Greek phantastikos for able to imagine) alongside its popular usage as a superlative, synonymous with our other super-intensifiers.
Use them carefully
The subtleties in the meanings of the super-intensifiers mean that they are not always interchangeable. Betjeman could not have used fantastic or marvellous (or indeed miraculous or wonderful) to describe his tremendous tale because he was attempting to highlight its truth not its supernaturalness.
On the other hand, Jones could have used any of the super-intensifiers to make his point. His marvellous thing could have been a fantastic or a tremendous thing.
Morrison had no choice but to talk about his fantastic rock concert. His concert was not tremendous or miraculous but a fantasy played out in his imagination.
So although our fantastic, marvellous and tremendous words can be used as super-intensifiers you must be aware of their meanings and use them very carefully.