One of the late Victor Borge's funniest routines had to do with what he called "inflationary language." Because of inflation, wonderful became twoderful, before became befive, create became crenine and tenderly became elevenderly.
Something like this actually does happen, although it might more properly be called "deflationary language." Some words, over time, tend to mean less than they once did.
Before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, we seldom heard the word horrific. I, in fact, even wondered if it were a real word. I had to look it up in a dictionary. It sounded to me like one of those words we make up on the spot, like yummilicious to describe a particularly good dessert. On Sept. 11, words like terrible or horrible or tragic just didn't seem powerful enough. They had become devalued over time. We needed a more powerful word, and horrific seemed to fill the bill.
Since then, however, horrific has become a commonplace word. I noticed it twice during the Olympic broadcasts. One swimmer was described as having come back from a "horrific injury." According to the dictionary, the word means causing horror, terrifying or causing fear. The swimmer's injury may have been serious, painful or even terrible, but horrific?
A soccer announcer said a goal was scored on a "horrific strike." Terrific maybe, but horrific? Actually, terrific once meant what horrific meant after 9-11. It meant something that causes terror, but because of language deflation it is now a positive word. We might speak of a terrific movie or a terrific play by a second baseman, but not a terrific terrorist attack.
On the Web I have noticed other examples of horrific becoming devalued as a word. Forbes magazine has an article about "Ten Horrific Business Mistakes" -- things like "dreadful customer service and support" and "pathetic revenues."
A Yahoo headline reads: "Horrific 10 Percent Literacy Rate Prompts ACLU to Sue Michigan Schools."
A TLC page about knitting speaks of "horrific knits." I also found reference to a "horrific quiz" and a "horrific meal." What once were called "horror movies" are now frequently called "horrific movies," I've noticed. San Antonio plans a "Horrific Film Fest" later this month.
The next time something like 9-11 happens -- and unfortunately it will -- the word horrific won't seem adequate to describe it. Reporters and commentators will have to search for another word equal to the task. They may even have to make one up.