How would you feel if someone described you as ‘formidable’?

Now, that's formidable. The Hoover Dam

A couple of days ago my friend J told me about a conversation she’d had with a colleague.  The colleague had told J that in the period they had been working together, she thought J had developed into a really formidable woman.

In the subsequent conversation it transpired that it had been meant as a compliment, although J had not initially understood it as such and had been rather taken aback.

When she asked me, I agreed that the image the words ‘formidable woman’ conjures is that of a battle-axe felling everything in her path; and J is most certainly not that.  We pondered how it might be construed as complimentary, and the best I could come up with at the time was an idea of admirable strength.

I tried out the idea of  ‘a formidable intellect’, but that still had a feel of something against which one wouldn’t necessarily have to pit oneself.

If you say it with a French accent it has a certain élan and suggests a celebration of the purely splendid; but none of us had the right accent.

I looked the word up in the dictionary, as frequently I can discover that I’ve not always understood the full elasticity of certain words.

In my OED ‘formidable’ comes between ‘formication’ (the sensation of ants crawling over the skin – who knew there was a word for that?  And even though my spell-checker has rejected it, it’s such an excellent word I’m going to have to find a way to use it!), and ‘formless’ (without determinate or recognisable form; not at all so interesting….)

But here we are: ‘Formidable’ – ‘to be dreaded or viewed with respect; likely to be hard to overcome, resist or deal with’.

So we were right; there’s not much room for manoeuvre there and not an adjective that one would seek out to describe oneself.

I  was interested though to see that to be dreaded and to be respected, if the definition is to be believed, have little to qualitatively distinguish them one from the other.

Is ‘respect’  a word for which the meaning is changing?  In contemporary common usage it encompasses a feeling of admiration that is lacking in the dictionary definition of implied deference.

In the meantime, I’ll offer ‘fabulous’ as an alternative ‘F’ word…..’incredible or marvellous’.


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  1. brendan stallard

     /  June 3, 2011

    “How would you feel if someone described you as ‘formidable’?”


    Okay. Although it would be a drag to lose the advantage of underestimation. As a cop, I was always happy if crims regarded me as useless. Gives me room to sneak up while they ain’t looking and cuff ’em.

    There are times when to frighten is useful, but they are few and far between.

    “‘formidable woman’ conjures is that of a battle-axe felling everything in her path”

    Catherine Weaver, played by Shirley Manson is both ultimately cool and sexy, and absolutely formidable.

    The first part of your post “reads” as if you don’t much like formidable woman. I do, and always have. Lets have more of ’em, please?

    “‘Formidable’ – ‘to be dreaded or viewed with respect; likely to be hard to overcome, resist or deal with’.”

    Right enough, Oderint Dum Metuant. Once you’ve got a bit of order in the situation, time enough for smiles and hugs later.

    brendan (no longer, if he ever was, formidable:)

    • Thanks Brendan, You’re probably right, it is horses for courses, but all the same I’d sooner be fabulous than formidable!

  2. emissima

     /  June 3, 2011

    Maybe its having lived in France, but I have NO problem with being called a formidable woman! And I think you are one too (although I won’t call you that if it has negative connotations for you!!). For me, no battleaxe associations. Just general fabulousness xxx

    • Thank Emma! It’s provoked quite a debate about the words we would choose to describe ourselves. I’m very happy to be formidable with a French accent! But with an English accent it’s a bit tweed skirt and sensible shoes for me! x

  3. brendan stallard

     /  June 3, 2011

    “it’s a bit tweed skirt and sensible shoes for me! x”

    LOL, Emissima and The Utterly Fabulous Rowena,

    Oh you youngsters!

    I wuz gunner have a bit argument with you on this. Fabulous is really rather more fictitious and incredible for this old geezah.

    There ain’t nuttin’ wrong wiv tweed skirts and sensible shoes.

    But: I can see you are both determined on this path of destruction to unicorn-ness! May you have joys of your jimmy choos and fly-away clothing.


  4. I think I would feel complimented if someone considered me a formidable opponent.

    • Thanks Christine, you’re right; to be formidable in those circumstances would be good; but in the absence of conflict, I’m still not so sure!


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