Nunberg draws a distinction about how recently the terms have come into use and who's using them:
[Horrific] didn't start to take off until a few decades ago, and it's been on a tear ever since — 10 times as common now as it was in 1970...."Horrific" belongs to television. The word started to catch on at the moment when the medium realized that audiences would watch raptly as they looped the same unsettling images, and its popularity grew along with cable news. "Horrific" turns up more on TV news than in newspapers, and far more than in fiction or in the movies. Behind "horrific" is the realization: "Oh my God, this really happened.""Surreal," on the other hand, is what the real-life witnesses use when describing what newscasters call "horrific" events.
This might be one to file away for those unhoped-for moments when a crisis or disaster involves your top spokespeople. Sounds to me as if those wishing to reach and relate to those of us who aren't newscasters may want to stick with "surreal" and leave the "horrifics" to the talking heads.
If you found this post useful, please subscribe or make a one-time donation to help support the thousands of hours that go into researching and curating this content for you: