I have always been fond of the word atrocious, and, alas, it has never stopped being useful. I was pleased to hear it used several times in documentary movies I watched over the past week, mostly to describe details of geopolitical reality, though I believe once or twice it was describing something in severe bad taste.
And that’s part of the charm of atrocious. It has two spheres of usage: moral and aesthetic. It’s either gut-wrenching or eye-rolling. About half the time it describes trash, and about half the time it describes… well, atrocities.
Which gives us a clear hint as to which it meant first, since atrocity – a patently related word – is much less often applied to simple bad taste or poor performance. An atrocity is not when some artwork is horribly executed; it is when some artist – or other person – is, horribly, executed. It applies to crimes against humanity, not crimes against the humanities.
And so it was in the beginning with atrocious, which came to us from Latin atrox ‘fierce, bloody, vicious, cruel’; the first definition the Oxford English Dictionary gives for atrocious is “characterized by savage enormity; excessively and wantonly cruel; heinously wicked.” Samuel Johnson characterized it as meaning “horribly criminal.” But it was only a matter of time (about two centuries after its late-1600s arrival in English) before it was also in use as meaning “criminally horrible.”
And that’s how it splits now. Look in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and you’ll see that sometimes it’s seen in atrocious crimes, atrocious acts, and atrocious conditions (as in prisons, labour camps, slave ships, and other depravities against humans and beasts), but sometimes it’s seen in atrocious behavior, atrocious spelling, and atrocious accent (mostly in criticism of actors’ performances), and when it’s seen in the collocation absolutely atrocious it’s more often referring to software performance, pro athletes’ records, and things of that order. And so we have a situation where both an army and a sports teams might be described as doing atrocious things, but only in the case of the army would they be called atrocities.
I make no commitments as to whether the sound of atrocious has affected the development of its usage, but I will say that it probably hasn’t hindered it. Atrocious sloshes around enjoyably in the mouth, sort of like “trash” in a cement mixer or washing machine – which atrocity does not. Its currency also can’t have been hurt by the line in “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” in Mary Poppins, “even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious” (and the following rhyme with precocious). And I have long liked its contribution to a classic word I know from How to Eat Like a Child by the delightful Delia Ephron: vomitrocious. Which is another word that is, alas, only ever more useful lately.