As you’ll no doubt have discovered during your learning journey, English is a language that is rich and descriptive. Often you’ll find many, many words that mean the same, or almost the same thing. The English language is definitely not short of ways to say great! Today we want to show you some words that are used every day in this way, so you can add them to your own conversations and liven up your language skills.
First we need to look at what great actually means, as it has several meanings in English today.
1. Of an extent, amount, or intensity considerably above average
“The article was of great interest”
2. Of ability, quality, or eminence considerably above average
“She’s great at French”, “The great day arrived”, “Another great goal from Alan”
3. Used before a noun to emphasize a particular description of someone or something
“I was a great fan of Hank’s”
1. An important or distinguished person
“The Beatles, Bob Dylan, all the greats”
1. Very well; excellently
“The band played great tonight”
Now we have a better idea of the most common meanings of ‘great’ we can take a look at some other words that are commonly used in its place.
This is a slang word that’s grown hugely in popularity since the 80s and we definitely have American-English to thank for it. It’s heavily associated with the skate and surf culture but spread so that everyone from street kids to the US President says it. It’s used as an adjective or, informally, as an adverb. So you could say “She’s awesome at French”, “That song is awesome!”, or “The band played awesomely tonight.”
The meaning of awesome has changed quite dramatically over the years. Originally, awesome meant ‘inspiring fear or awe.’ Today it’s used all the time, particularly in the US, to mean ‘great’ or ‘excellent.’
The bee’s knees
This is one to use when you’re using ‘great’ as a noun. Like in the example given in the dictionary definition above, you could say “The Beatles? Bob Dylan? Oh, they’re the bee’s knees.” It basically means ‘excellent, of the highest quality, the best.’ This phrase is an odd one, and its meaning has changed over the years.
It was first recorded in the late 18th century, when it was used to mean ‘something very small and insignificant’, then it was used as a nonsense expression, often to describe something that didn’t have any meaningful existence. But in the 1920s, the American jazz scene picked up on the phrase and started adding it to the growing list of slang expressions that meant ‘excellent,’ like ‘the cat’s whiskers’, and ‘the flea’s eyebrows.’
Here’s another word where the meaning has changed over time. Today we use it in much the same way as great – “You look terrific!”, “Thanks, I feel terrific” – to mean excellent or extremely good. However, terrific didn’t always mean this, in fact, it can be traced back to the 17th century from the Latin words ‘terrificus’ and ‘terrere’ meaning ‘to frighten.’
So how did the change in meaning come about? In the 17th century if something was terrific it meant that it had the power to make you feel great fear. By the early 1800s it appeared as a weakened sense of ‘very great or severe’, that is you might say that you had a ‘terrific headache’ if you had a powerful headache – but obviously this isn’t ‘excellent or extremely good’! This meaning of terrific didn’t appear until around 1888, when in an informal way it started being used to mean ‘excellent.’ It’s odd when English words completely change their meaning, but it happens more than you’d think – so much so that there’s now a word for it – ‘amelioration.’