By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Excellent’ is such a common word, and we so often want a word that describes something that is really good: a good performance, a fine meal, a splendid person, and so on. And ‘excellent’ is the word people often reach for. But this post is all about trying to find some alternatives to ‘excellent’, ranging from common synonyms for ‘excellent’ right the way through to rare but rather … well, excellent words that mean the same as ‘excellent’.
Synonyms for ‘excellent’
One of the problems with the word ‘excellent’ is that (like ‘nice’) it’s so often used and so has been hollowed out of its meaning. The same problem attends one of the commonest synonyms for ‘excellent’, GREAT, which obviously implies ideas of vast statue or size as well as something of superior or top quality.
BRILLIANT is a little more promising, and has a different origin: it’s from the French meaning ‘shine’ (and ultimately, it’s thought, from a late Latin word related to the gemstone beryl). Indeed, ‘brilliant’ only came to be used as a synonym for ‘excellent’ or ‘really good’ in the eighteenth century, but in the seventeenth century it was already being used to mean ‘brightly shining’ or, as a noun, to refer to a diamond of the finest cut.
SPLENDID is another synonym for ‘excellent’ which, like ‘brilliant’, stems from a word denoting brightness: it’s from the Latin splendidus, ‘bright’. Initially, in the early seventeenth century, ‘splendid’ specifically meant ‘grand’ or ‘sumptuous’, so a house, or a party or ball thrown at that house, might be described as ‘splendid’.
But again, as with the other synonyms mentioned above, ‘splendid’ has had its meaning watered down somewhat in the intervening centuries …
A very close synonym for ‘excellent’ is a word which begins with the same four letters: EXCEPTIONAL. An ‘exception’ is usually a one-off: the one thing, or person, which stands out from the rest as being ‘the exception to the rule’, as the old phrase has it. So ‘exceptional’ reminds us that ‘excellent’ strictly refers to something or someone which excels at something, and is especially good at it: pre-eminent in the field. ‘Exceptional’ takes such rareness further, almost to the point of uniqueness.
A related word is OUTSTANDING, which conveys the same idea: of not merely being very good, but so good you stand out from the others. MATCHLESS – literally, someone without a match or equal – is another handy synonym here, as is PEERLESS (again, without equal or peer).
There’s also a small group of synonyms for the word ‘excellent’ which relate to the supernatural, miraculous, or unusual. Something isn’t just exceptionally good, but almost freakishly or magically so. For example, there’s MARVELLOUS – which, since the fourteenth century, has been used to mean ‘wonderful’ (as in literally exciting wonder or awe) or ‘astonishing’. Indeed, it took around five hundred years for ‘marvellous’ to be used as a loose synonym for ‘excellent’ or ‘brilliant’, in the nineteenth century. And while we’re at it, WONDERFUL is another popular synonym for the same word.
Other examples include FANTASTIC – related, of course, to the idea of the fantastical and, ultimately, to fantasy. And as we know, a fantasy is something that isn’t real, but merely dreamt up or imagined (the word is ultimately from the ancient Greek meaning ‘to show’, and is etymologically related to the word PHENOMENAL – another useful synonym here, as in the title of Maya Angelou’s famous poem ‘Phenomenal Woman’).
Related synonyms include FABULOUS – related to the fable, so a fictional story, again implying something out of the pages of fiction rather than reality. Something almost too good to be true, we might say – and talking of fiction, there’s the handy word FRABJOUS, a portmanteau word coined by Lewis Carroll in his poem ‘Jabberwocky’, included in his 1871 book Through the Looking-Glass:
‘And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’
He chortled in his joy.
In the poem, ‘frabjous’ means ‘fair and joyous’, although the sounds of the word suggest that Carroll possibly had ‘fabulous’ in mind, too. (And yes, that’s the first use of the word ‘chortled’, too: Carroll coined it in the same poem to refer to a chuckle which also contains a snort.)
TERRIFIC, meanwhile, began life in the seventeenth century (the OED cites John Milton’s Paradise Lost as the earliest instance, in 1667) as an adjective meaning ‘causing or inspiring terror’. Then it meant ‘excessive’ or ‘very severe’, and finally, in the nineteenth century, ‘amazing’ or excellent’.
A group of compound terms can also be used as synonyms for ‘excellent’: FIRST-RATE, FIRST-CLASS, and TOP-NOTCH are perhaps the most notable examples.
A group of related words can also be used to mean ‘excellent’: SUPREME, SUPERB, SUPER, and SUPERIOR all convey the idea that something is over and above the rest (the prefix ‘super-’ means ‘over’, of course).
A few slang terms have proved fairly durable, though – as with all slang – they fall in and out of favour from one generation to the next. But SMASHING is sometimes used, as is WICKED; SICK came to mean ‘good’ surprisingly early: the OED cites a publication on campus slang from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 1983, where ‘sick’ was used to mean ‘excellent’ (to describe a Fleetwood Mac concert). ‘Sick’ often conveys an element of risk: something has been achieved that was risky, but the person doing it pulled it off (it’s especially popular in skateboarding and surfing for this reason).
A couple of older synonyms for ‘excellent’ which have fallen out of favour include EUJIFFEROUS, a rare word meaning ‘splendid’ or ‘grand’, and QUEEM, an obsolete word meaning ‘pleasing or agreeable’. Perhaps they’re due a revival.
Antonyms for ‘excellent’
Just as ‘excellent’ has a cornucopia of synonyms, so it has plenty of well-known antonyms. So, as ‘terrific’ is a great alternative word for ‘excellent’, so TERRIBLE is a fine antonym, used to refer to something that is very bad rather than very good. Curiously, both terrific and terrible initially meant the same thing: inspiring terror. But they have diverged in their meanings since, until they have become antonyms.
Talking of terror and fear, the word DREADFUL has undergone a similar evolution, and is now a common antonym for ‘excellent’, instead denoting something that is so bad as to be shocking – almost scarily so. AWFUL is another example. Curiously, that initially meant ‘inspiring awe’, and meant something closer to the modern word awesome, but now, the latter is a synonym for ‘excellent’ whereas the former is its antonym. And sticking with horror, HORRIBLE is obviously a useful antonym for excellent too.
UNPLEASANT, REPULSIVE, and REPELLENT are all used as antonyms for excellent as well, and imply a level of disgust at how bad something is.
Meanwhile, if we’re talking about how good someone or something is at performing a job, task, or role, then USELESS, INCOMPETENT, and even TALENTLESS are all handy antonyms for ‘excellent’ and its various synonyms. Here, the emphasis is on what these things (or people) do (or don’t/can’t do), rather than on some innate quality that inspires repulsion or dislike.