Word of the Week: Abysmal

Word: abysmal

Pronunciation: ə-BIZ-məl

Part of Speech: adjective

Definition: extremely bad; appalling

Source: Oxford Dictionaries

Man, this is bad. And I’ve had my share of bad reviews. I still remember my first good one, though. “Everything else in this production of Our Town was simply terrible. Joey Tribbiani was abysmal.”

– Joey Tribbiani, Friends (Season 8, Episode 21 – The One With The Cooking Class)

While we’re on the subject of vocabulary used on Friends, why not take the opportunity to learn another word from Joey? Interestingly, the first time I remember hearing the word “abysmal” was in a case where it was being used incorrectly. While everyone is reading a terrible review of Monica’s restaurant in the newspaper, Joey comments that among all the negative reviews he’s ever received on his acting, he distinctly remembers his first positive one. However, he quickly makes it clear that he has no idea what the critic meant by “abysmal”, for the comment he thinks is that his performance was the best thing in the play is actually that it was the worst.

Anything considered “abysmal” is awful or of extremely poor quality. This informal word dates back to the early 19th century as the adjective form of the noun “abysm”, a literary term for “abyss”. The latter word comes from the Latin noun abyssus “bottomless pit”, which in turn is derived from the Greek adjective abussos, meaning “bottomless” or “without depth”.

Aside from its common meaning, “abysmal” can also be used as a literary term for “very deep”. This definition is relatively rare in modern use, though, so you may not see it much in this sense except in very specific contexts, such as in poetry about the sea. In any case, it’s safe to assume that whatever is described as “abysmal” is being portrayed in a negative light, so be sure to keep that in mind the next time you need to define something horrible in your stories. The important thing is that your readers don’t consider your work itself “abysmal”! Good luck!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

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