Severely artistic

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Chris Hadfield, orbiting the earth,  was asked "Which part of the world looks the coolest from space?", and answered:

Australia looks coolest – the colours and textures of the Outback are severly [sic]  artistic.

As I observed in "Severely X", 2/11/2012, severely seems generally to be a negatively-evaluated intensifier:

more than 98% of the time, the following word is something generally regarded as regrettable if not downright bad.

But Kevin Conor, pointing to Hadfield's AMA response, wonders whether severely with positive connotations might be catching on.

We get a clue from Hadfield's next sentence:

The most beautiful to me are the Bahamas, the vast glowing reefs of every shade of blue that exists.

In contrast to the beauty of the Bahamas, the Australian outback is "severely artistic" — artfully composed, but austere, stark, etc. We can see the same usage a century and a half ago in Hiram Fuller, "Belle Brittan on a Tour at Newport", 1858:

Yet he is severely orthodox in his morality ; and still more severely artistic in his verse. His marble rhymes never warm, never inspire me ; but they are so perfectly chisseled, that I yield to them the same sort of cold admiration one feels for a faultless ideal statue of stone; not the glowing ardor excited by the living reality of flesh and blood.

And turning to the first two pages of recent stories in Google News, we find severely modifying obese, mentally ill, beaten, wounded, injured (4), needy, abused, burned, austistic, neglected, cheap, congested, disabled, and damaged.

So is severely taking a new, positive turn? I don't think so.


  1. Dick Gregory said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 5:32 pm

    "The colours and textures of the Outback are 'severly' artistic."

    [(myl) This is surely not the first orbital typo. But I can't point to any earlier ones, off hand.]

  2. Bobbie said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 5:33 pm

    I thought this was gong to be an article about a person with severe autism.

  3. Emily M said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 5:35 pm

    Based on the title of this post, I expected it to be a play on "severely autistic". Perhaps there was some subconscious sound-based similarly leading to Hadfield's choice of phrasing?

  4. rootlesscosmo said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 5:55 pm

    A character in "Alien 4" describes Winona Ryder's character as "severely fuckable."

    [(myl) This strikes me as similar to "appallingly clever", "disastrously competent", "fatally attractive", etc.]

  5. David B said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 6:03 pm

    Given the use of my students (which I've adopted somewhat), I suspect that yes, severely is negatively-evaluated, but that quality makes it an especially positive intensifier when used in a context where it can't be read as negative. (Maybe ’cause it calls semantic attention to itself in such cases?)

    [(myl) Well, there's the whole "revaluation of values" thing, which emerges linguistically with words like terribly and awfully turning into their opposites, or more topically ill, sick, etc.]

  6. Jonathan Lundell said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 6:07 pm

    In weather forecast jargon, "severe clear" is sometimes used to denote a completely clear sky (merely "clear" can have up to 10% sky cover, "mostly clear" up to 30%). You'll hear it from pilots. Not to be confused with "severe clear-air turbulence", or "severe clear icing", which are both bad.

  7. huggle said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 6:10 pm

    A google search for "severely cool" gives lots of results, including a page titled "Sheer Awesomeness with a side of Severely Cool".

  8. Ellen K. said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 6:10 pm

    Seems to me that severely in these cases is being used in a more specific meaning than simply an intensifier. For me anyway, "severely", as a word learned monomorphemically just means "intensely", but taken compositionally, as severe + -ly, it can mean something more like "starkly".

  9. psteve said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 6:20 pm

    You have to wonder whether Mitt (you remember) Romney meant "severely" in a positive or negative light when he said he was "severely conservative." Obama made a nice play on this: '“He’s trying to go through an extreme makeover: After running for more than a year in which he called himself severely conservative, Mitt Romney is trying to convince you that he was severely kidding."'

  10. iVctor Mathir said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 6:30 pm

    I think the comment can be paraphrased as "severe and artistic" meaning stark and lifeless reds and oranges.

  11. Sjiveru said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 6:35 pm

    I wonder if the phonetic similarity of 'severely artistic' to 'severely autistic' has anything to do with anything.

  12. Carl Voss said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 6:43 pm

    Mitt Romney boasted of having been a "severely conservative" governor (

    [(myl) Right, that's where this thread started, as indicated in the link in the second sentence of the original post. Kevin wondered whether Romney's phrase might have been a sign (or even a cause) of a more positive usage pattern.]

  13. Carl Offner said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 6:56 pm

    Yes, I was stopped dead assuming that "autistic" was meant. Then I had to assure myself that "severely autistic" couldn't make sense in that context. So it's not a usage I'm familiar with, at any rate.

  14. Ross Presser said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 7:06 pm

    There is also some resonance with the word "sere", which would be very appropriate for the Australian outback. At least in my head, there was resonance.

  15. Brett said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 7:14 pm

    I think Ellen K. has it basically right. The primary meaning of "severely" is compositional, and it is applied to injuries or damage. "Severely wounded" means the wounds are severe; "severely damaged" means the damage is severe." The other negative-valence usages seem to be a metaphorical extension of this and are not quite compositional. (While "severely obese" sounds pretty unremarkable, saying that a patient's "obesity is severe" doesn't really work for me; it is straightforward to interpret, but seems incorrect in some subtle way.)

    The fact that the metaphorical use of "severely" is so common has probably crowded out other compositional uses of "severely" that refer to other meanings of "severe." Nevertheless, such uses do persist in special contexts. A bit of Googling turns up a number of usages of potentially positive "severely" in discussions of artistic style, where "severe" is a term of art. I have considered using "severely" in its alternate senses a couple of times in my own writing, although I think I always decided against it because of the word's typically negative associations. It may also show up in the work of writers (such as Joss Whedon, who wrote Alien: Resurrection) who are trying much too hard to make their dialogue sound unusual.

  16. maidhc said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 7:44 pm

    I wonder if the negative connotations of "severely" are retained in a jocular way.

    "That sandwich was severely tasty. It was so tasty your head might explode."

  17. GeorgeW said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 8:13 pm

    I also found the description of the Outback as "artistic" a little unusual. I don't think I would describe the subject of art, or its characteristics, as "artistic."

  18. David Morris said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 8:31 pm

    An online search for 'outback aerial photography' returned 131,000 hits. This is one typical page:

  19. Dan Lufkin said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 8:37 pm

    My 20-yr-old Random House dictionary has wicked: (slang) wonderful; great. I can testify that it goes back to the 1930s in Maine, and not particularly slangy.
    It also has severity: austere simplicity, as of style or taste. Places don't get much more austere than the Outback.

  20. Dan M. said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 8:50 pm

    Yeah, I definitely have to vote with Ellen K's analysis as this meaning artistic in a severe way and considering that use of "severely" essentially separate from the "strongly and bad" sense.

  21. Mike L said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 9:23 pm

    The best desk graffito I saw in high school (in the mid-80s) was "AC/DC RULES SEVERLY" [sic].

  22. David Morris said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 9:53 pm

    If you are going to say/write "severe" to mean "austere", then why not say/write "austere" in the first place – it's only one letter longer and is unambiguous?

  23. rwmg said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 10:06 pm

    Although like many I was expecting some sort of mondegreen for 'severely autistic', I find nothing untoward in this use of 'severely' as the adverb for a 'severe' artistic style. I don't think it's an exact synonym of 'austere', though I'm not sure I could explain the difference off the top of my head.

  24. rwmg said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 10:11 pm

    PS. A google for 'severe style' reminds me that this is actually the name for a style of Greek art as a transition between the Archaic and Classical styles. I was probably familiar with this at one point but had long ago forgotten it. But it may be at the root of why I find the usage unremarkable.

  25. HP said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 10:31 pm

    I've been following Chris Hadfield's career in space for a few years now, and he's probably the most remarkably esthetic and observational astronaut in the history of manned space exploration. His photography is astonishing, and his ability to communicate the joy and wonder of space to us earthbound humans is unparalleled, and a marked counterpoint to the bland military understatement of the pioneering veterans of the US and Soviet missions of the 60s and 70s. I wouldn't put it past him to make a fully conscious, improvised rhetorical figure in an off-the-cuff interview.

  26. Martha said,

    February 18, 2013 @ 11:28 pm

    I agree with GeorgeW. For me, the outback can't be "artistic" unless the guy was suggesting the outback was creating its own beauty.

  27. Robert said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 3:19 am

    Another agreement with Ellen K.
    Googling "severely beautiful" yields many hits including geographical contexts.

  28. Jeroen Mostert said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 3:19 am

    @David: your point seems austerely misguided.

    I for one applaud attempts to get "severely" to come out of the generic negative intensifier corner it's standing in and dance for a bit. The base "severe" has a richer bouquet of meaning than "austere", and "severely" quite readily lends itself to constructions where the tone is not completely negative.

  29. Ron said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 8:48 am

    @Jonathan Lundell: A search for "severe clear weather" returned > 38m hits. Most of the page 1 references were to the weather on 9/11. This is typical:

    @Jeroen: I agree. I like the juxtaposition of a traditionally negative intensifier with something positive. However, I think that in some cases – "severely beautiful" comes to mind – the image would be not just intensified but intensified in a very specific way.

  30. mollymooly said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 8:56 am

    The NP "severe art" has some relevant Google Books hits; the corresponding AdjP might be "severely artistic".

    – It is a severe art retaining some morbid traces of Mannerism, such as the figure of the meditative monarch, the melancholy Philip II, enamored of hermetic philosophy and the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.

    – Called De Stijl (pronounced duh STEHL), which means "The Style," this movement of artists and architects advocated a severe art of pure geometry.

    – confidence in the eternal order of the Byzantine world, symbolized in the Macedonian era (867–1081) by a strong, if not severe, art style

    – St Bernard, advocate of a terse and severe art without images

    – his nomination has confirmed Boucher in a ruinous addiction to gallant rococo scenes and voluptuousness that runs counter to the "severe art" needed for artistic regeneration.

  31. chris said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 9:17 am

    If "bad" and "wicked" can be positive, I don't see why any word can't be, in the right context.

  32. Robert Coren said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 10:45 am

    I wonder if there's some influence from "seriously", which is often used colloquially as an intensifier, positive or negative or neutral.

  33. Linda Seebach said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 12:11 pm

    When my son was in first grade, his teacher referred him for evaluation (because he couldn't tie his shoelaces and didn't make many friends) and the psychologist who did the evaluation wrote that he was "severely gifted," and I took that to reflect the school's concern that he was going to cost them extra money for accommodation. Not that any was ever provided.

  34. Terry Cullen said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 12:51 pm

    I think Robert is right – I'm not sure of this astronaut's age, but I can easily imagine people my age (20s) using "severely" as a synonym of "seriously" with the same positive connotation. Uncommon, to be sure, but not unheard of.

  35. hector said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

    I'm in my sixties, and I find "severely artistic" unremarkable, so I'm surprised at all the resistance to it. As Dan Lufkin pointed out, it's consistent with the dictionary definition of "severe." Perhaps the "austere simplicity" sense of "severe" went out of use for a generation, and I'm just an old codger who remembers it?

  36. ken lakritz said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 9:09 pm

    I've seen any number of narcissistic characters in 'high IQ community' describe themselves as 'severely gifted.'

  37. Jamie Salcedo said,

    February 20, 2013 @ 11:33 am

    Hadfield's AMA was great. I instantly followed his tumblr when I saw some on other sites, and I almost wanted to ask him about if he used any photo equipment (filters, a light meter , etc.) to get them to come out so great.

  38. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: presidents’ words, dialect controversy, fairy tales | Wordnik said,

    February 22, 2013 @ 10:02 am

    […] Language Log, Mark Liberman was severely positive. At Lingua Franca, Ben Yagoda swang and missed, Allan Metcalf explained the grammar of newspaper […]

  39. Randy said,

    February 23, 2013 @ 1:25 pm

    Note that Hadfield is from Canada, where one of the most famous rock groups is The Tragically Hip. The name has a similar pattern to "sever[e]ly artistic", a negative word modifying a positive adjective. Possibly this influenced his word choice. ;)

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