Bad words masquerading as good ones (and terribly good intensifiers)

image     jacksonbad

In a recent article about Justin Bieber’s new single and its producers, Skrillex and Blood, Inquisitr reported: “As it turned out, Blood (Mike Tucker) and Skrillex (Sonny Moore) collaborated for the first time on Justin’s new album, Purpose. “That’s sick,” says the Biebs, after this revelation.” [sic] Don’t worry: the Biebs wasn’t suggesting there was anything untoward or negative about his colleagues’ first collaboration on his album; the super-popster was actually saying quite the opposite — that this was, in fact, cool, fantastic, great, amazing …

The trend of bad words being used to mean good things in an informal or colloquial sense is relatively young, possibly dating back to when Michael Jackson released his landmark song “Bad” in 1987 — and he turned the meaning of bad on its head. “He sings, ‘I’m bad, you’re bad, who’s bad, who’s the best?’,” Jackson explained himself in a discussion about the song’s lyrics. “He’s saying when you’re strong and good, then you’re bad.”

presumably the good meaning of bad was born …

Below are some other negative words that in the 21st century have found new life meaning the opposite of — or taking a strangely positive twist on — their formal dictionary definitions. All the Urban Dictionary meanings listed here date from this century. (And if you think of any more, please add them in the comments section below.)

One interesting bad/good word to note is wicked — see its entry belowwhich takes the form of one of these bad-good words in British-English slang, but masquerades as something quite different in informal American-speak: as a slangy intensifier. Originating in New England, and still prolific as such in the Boston area and elsewhere, this American colloquial use of wicked simply adds emphasis to whatever follows, in the same way that really and very do in standard English (but in a much more groovy way). See how in the image above a Boston wine is named “Wicked Crisp Sauvignon Blanc,”, and customers are promised that “this wine is wicked good.” Interestingly, the word wicked follows in the footsteps of a few old-fashioned and very British-English intensifiers —  awfully, terribly, and frightfully — which, despite having their roots in pretty bad-ass adjectives, were and still are used broadly and fairly indiscriminately to add emphasis to positive as well as negative attributes: “He is terribly good at what he does”; “I say, she’s frightfully intellectual”; “would you be awfully kind and pass me the salt?”

Oxford English Dictionary: “Of poor quality; inferior or defective”
Urban Dictionary: “dope, good, tight. This car is bad!”

OED: “Affected by physical or mental illness”
UD: “crazy, cool, insane. man, that trick was sick yo.”

OED: “Of poor quality; inferior or defective”
UD: “cool, tight, sweet. that trick was ill”

OED: “Mentally deranged, especially as manifested in a wild or aggressive way”
UD: “Often misinterpreted as a bad characteristic, crazy is used to describe people that are random, hyper, creative, and flat out fun to hang with. (adj.) Guy1: Aren’t you friends with Nicki?
Guy2: Yeah, she’s crazy.”

OED:”In a state of mind that prevents normal perception, behavior, or social interaction; seriously mentally ill”
UD: “Very,very, very talented.”Wow the drummer from that that band InEyesofRuin is insane!!!”

OED: “A stupid person” or “a drug taken illegally for recreational purposes, especially marijuana or heroin”
UD: “adj. cool, nice, awesome. Yo foo that new stereo system is dope!”

OED: “Highly unpleasant, especially to the senses; physically nauseating”
UD: “A word used to describes someone’s excellent ability at something or to describe something that is ridiculously good. Garett is nasty at basketball and soccer. Sherr makes a nasty omelette”

The shit:
OED: “feces” or “something worthless; garbage; nonsense”
UD: “The best. This word is very interesting. The important part of it is without THE, an entirely different meaning applies. My teacher is shit= bad teacher. My teacher is THE shit = greatest teacher. My car is the SHIT.”

The bomb:
OED: “Nuclear weapons considered collectively as agents of mass destruction”
UD: “Something or someone that is really cool. Einstein is the bomb!”

Killed (it):
OED: “Cause the death of (a person, animal, or other living thing)”
UD: “tr. v. (figurative) also kill it, killin’ it: used when describing in brief an excellent or beyond satisfactory performance by any individual or team, used commonly to describe sports contests, musical performances, video game tourneys, etc. “yo were you at the guitar hero tournament” “yeah bro, ricky killed it ”

OED: “Evil or morally wrong”

UD (British-English): an adjective used by the younger generation to describe something really cool, good, enjoyable. This website is wicked. How wicked was that film? Mate, that is wicked.”

UD (American): “New England slang that adds emphasis. Synonymous with really, very and hella.

To describe how great something is: “This car is wicked cool!”
To show aggravation: “This fucking guy is a wicked asshole!”
To show frustration: “That guy is wicked slow!”
To show amazement: “Wow, that game is wicked awesome!”
To describe a person: “She’s a wicked bitch!”
To describe the weather: “Man, it’s wicked hot out here!”
To emphasize feelings: “That story made me wicked sad!”
To exaggerate your point: “That took a wicked long time!”
“That wicked cool car is wicked fast is owned by that wicked old guy, who drives it wicked slow when it’s wicked hot out, which makes me wicked sad cause I’m wicked broke and I got to walk a wicked long way.”

*   *   *   *   *

Hat-tip to Lily for the idea


1 thought on “Bad words masquerading as good ones (and terribly good intensifiers)

  1. David

    As a lay expert on the history of pop music, I feel compelled to point out that Michael Jackson was not pioneering by employing the word “bad” as a term of approbation; rather he was building on a well-established tradition.

    One might argue that in 1973’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” Jim Croce used “bad” in its origina,l negative sense; the eponymous character is in fact meaner than a junkyard dog. Considering that he is also “badder than old King Kong,” though, suggests that at the very least Mr. Brown commands respect and perhaps even sympathy.

    By 1981, however, it is abundantly clear that when Carlton Fisk sings that “She’s a Bad Mama Jama,” there’s no hint of criticism. The very next line explains, as if to elaborate, that she’s “just as fine as she can be.”

    And in 1986–still a year before MJ’s opus–the rap popularizers Run-DMC laid it all out explicitly in their song “Peter Piper”:

    Tricks are for kids, he plays much gigs
    He’s a big bad wolf and you’re the three pigs
    He’s a big bad wolf in your neighborhood
    *Not “bad” meaning “bad,” but “bad” meaning “good!”*
    [Emphasis added]

    As a contemporary listener, I can attest that at the time of the song’s release that explanation seemed to have been intended for humorous effect, since the counterintuitive meaning of “bad,” especially in the context of African-American music, was by then well-established.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.