The Grammarphobia Blog

Was the Joplin tornado surreal?

Q: I’m disappointed that “surreal” has become the adjective of choice for disasters. Example: “The Joplin tornado was surreal.” Argh! I can’t stand the loss of what was once a beautiful, subtle word for the dreamlike worlds of Jung and Dali.

A: You’re right that the word “surreal” got a real workout last month as people struggled for words to describe the death and destruction in Joplin, Missouri.

And, yes, the word was probably overused (we got more than 1.2 million hits when we googled “surreal” and “Joplin”), but we don’t think it was necessarily misused.

The adjective “surreal” broke away from its artistic and psychoanalytic roots quite a few decades ago. It has long been a favorite of newspaper headline writers looking for a way of describing something weird, unreal, incongruous, etc.

A 1970 headline in the New York Times, for example, used it to describe Vice President Spiro Agnew’s efforts to support Republican candidates for Congress: “For Agnew, a Surreal Campaign.”

A 1972 headline in the Los Angeles Times used the term to describe the presentation of fashion awards: “Surreal Theatrics at Coty Ceremony.”

And a 1982 headline in the Montreal Gazette used it to describe an interview with the Libyan leader: “Khadafi gives ‘surreal’ interview.”

More in line with the usage that bugs you, here’s a headline from the San Jose Mercury about a 1985 earthquake in Mexico: “WITNESSES DESCRIBE SURREAL, SPECTACULAR SCENE.

We had a blog item a couple of years ago when a reader complained about the use of “surrealistic” for “surreal.”

Both words are 1930s offshoots of two earlier ones, the noun “surrealism” (1917) and the adjective “surrealist” (1918), coined by the French painter Guillaume Apollinaire (originally as surréalisme and surréaliste).

The French words were immediately absorbed into English, where “surrealist” became a noun (meaning an adherent of surrealism) as well as an adjective.

Surrealism refers to works of art, literature, film, or theater that seek to express the world of the subconscious mind by using techniques like juxtaposing realistic images in an irrational way.

As the poet André Breton explained in his Surrealist Manifesto (1924), the aim was to transmute “those two seemingly contradictory states, dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, of surreality, so to speak.”

These days, as you’ve observed, “surrealism” and company are used both inside and outside the worlds of art, literature, film, and so on.

In everyday language, both “surreal” and “surrealistic” can simply mean dreamlike, unreal, strange, and so on. In our opinion, though, they’re a bit overused.

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