- abysmal, abyssalThe currency of these two words is in inverse proportion to that of the parent words: abysmal, with its figurative meaning ‘very bad’ and a literal meaning relating to gorges, outer space, etc., is common, whereas abyssal is limited to technical usage in oceanography, ‘belonging to one of the deepest levels of the ocean’ (e.g. in the term abyssal floor) and geology, where it has a meaning, similar to plutonic, relating to igneous rock (as in abyssal hills). By contrast, abyss is still used (usually in figurative uses denoting disaster, e.g. They are staring into the abyss), whereas abysm (under 20 in the OEC) is not. Examples of abysmal: (figurative)
• The day was hot, the organisation…excellent, and the cricket of generally abysmal quality —Wisden Cricket Monthly, 1992
• Video ads have been tried many times before and, each time, have been abysmal failures —Aardvark Daily, NewZE 2004 [OEC]
• The US is not alone in its abysmal ignorance of the democratic processes of countries it considers its staunchest allies —Cherwell Magazine Online, 2005 [OEC]
• (literal) Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea —P. Allardice, 1990.
Modern English usage. 2014.