Good or bad: What does “terrible” mean in French?

The French word terrible means something is bad – but it can also mean something is really good!

Let’s take a look at the tricky French usage of terrible.

Does terrible mean bad or good in French?

A cute gray puppy with a white chest and a red collar cocks his head in confusion.

If you look up terrible in a French dictionary or a site like Wiktionniare, most of the definitions will show that terrible means, well, terrible. That is, something bad, in some cases even fearsome in its awfulness or power.

In everyday language, though, the French tend to use terrible this way sparingly, since they avoid hyperbole.

So you might come across something like this common literary/cinematic expression:

Ma vengeance sera terrible.

(My vengeance will be terrible/I will wreak terrible vengeance)

But you probably won’t hear a French person say something like Ce film est terrible…

…unless the person is using terrible’s OTHER meaning: that it’s really, impressively good!

When does terrible mean “good” in French?

In some cases, terrible can mean “good” in French – make that really, impressively good.

If you come across terrible on the news, in literature, in formal language, or when describing something that is truly a terrible tragedy or disaster, it means that it’s bad.  But if it’s used in everyday language, especially to describe something that’s not extremely serious, it probably means “good”.

When it’s positive in meaning, you could say that terrible is like the English word awesome – an informal derivation of a word that implied terrifying power and force.

As one astute commenter remarks on this thread, you could also think of terrible in its positive sense as “terrific”. In fact, both words share a common root.

You could also make sense of it by thinking of the adverb form “terribly” – terriblement, in French.

In both languages, this word essentially means “very” – again, that idea of powering up. But it doesn’t mean anything negative per se. For instance: Il me manque terriblement (I miss him terribly) might use it in a negative way, but then you could take this quote from Molière himself: Pour moi, j’aime terriblement les énigmes (As for me, I very much like riddles), where terriblement doesn’t have a bad context at all.

How can I tell if terrible is bad or good in French?

Seen from behind, a black-haired woman wearing glasses listens to music on a pair of white headphones outside near a hedge.
<< Cet album est terrible ! >>

In most cases, you’ll only be able to tell if terrible is meant in a negative or positive way in French based on context.

There are a few clues that might help, though. Remember that:

As a general rule, terrible usually means “bad” in French if it’s used in formal, professional, or literary circumstances, as well as on newscasts.

For example:

Hier soir, les habitants du quartier ont été témoins d’un terrible accident.

(Last night, the neighborhood’s residents witnessed a terrible accident.)

As a general rule, terrible means “good” in French only in informal, everyday language or slang. It is not used this way in formal or professional French, or in newscasts.

For example:

Cet album est terrible – Brian May déchire sur la guitare ! 

(This album rocks/is awesome – Brian May fricking rules on the guitar!)

Terrible is rarely used to mean “bad” in French when talking about something that’s not serious.

This is because the French tend to dislike exaggerating. So you might hear C’était un terrible accident (It was a terrible/horrible accident) in a negative sense, but probably not Ce livre est terrible. 

In the case of the latter, because it’s a minor thing that’s being discussed. So in this case, especially if it’s being said in an informal context, it probably means “This book was awesome/terrific.”

Terrible is used in its “bad” sense in two common French phrases: enfant terrible and the extremely typical Pas terrible.

Let’s talk more about those in our next section.

Two common French phrases with terrible

Terrible isn’t the most common of French words. You’ll probably most often come across it in one of these two common phrases:

(un/l’) enfant terrible – a wild child, a rebel. This can be used to literally refer to a misbehaved young person, but it’s usually used metaphorically, and with a definite article – for instance:

On va lire un poème d’Arthur Rimbaud, l’enfant terrible de la poésie française du XIXe siècle.

(We’re going to read a poem by Arthur Rimbaud, the enfant terrible of nineteenth century French poetry.)

Enfant terrible is such a catchy phrase that it’s even been borrowed into English!

pas terrible – pretty bad.

Pas terrible is BY FAR the most common way French people use the word terrible in everyday spoken language today. While terrible itself isn’t particularly common, this phrase is something you’ll come across a lot.

Unfortunately, it’s a bit tricky because it’s a faux ami.

In English, if you’re acknowledging that something is bad but not a total disaster, you’d say “It’s not terrible.”

But in French, pas terrible means “It’s pretty bad.”

Since pas terrible is an extremely common French phrase, let’s have a more in-depth look at it:

What does pas terrible mean?

The silhouettes of three actors striking a pose are seen behind a red theater curtain. The first is a man in a hat, the second is a short-haired woman in a dress, the third is a man in a coat and umbrella.
Son nouveau spectacle n’est pas terrible.

Pas terrible means “pretty bad” in French.

So if someone tells you something you’ve done is Pas terrible, it’s not a consolation; it’s bad news.

In addition to remembering that Pas terrible is a faux ami, be careful not to get it confused with the similar expression Pas mal – this one actually does mean “Not bad”, just like in English.

Pas terrible is used extremely often in everyday spoken, informal French. “Informal” is key here, so avoid using it in professional or formal situations.

Pas terrible can be used:

on its own.

Example:

– C’était comment son spectacle?

– Pas terrible.

(“How was his play?” “Pretty bad.”)

– in a sentence.

Example:

Son nouveau spectacle n’est pas terrible.

(His new play is pretty bad.)

– especially in the phrase C’est pas terrible or its more grammatically correct (but rarer) variant, Ce n’est pas terrible. 

Example:

– Alors, qu’est-ce que tu penses de son nouveau spectacle ?

– C’est pas terrible.

(“So, what do you think of his new play?” “It’s pretty bad.”)

C’est pas terrible is probably the single most common way you will see pas terrible used.


Now  you know the two meanings of the French word terrible, a word that lives a double life! Have you ever gotten confused by terrible in French? Feel free to share in the comments.

Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.

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