Why have so many ‘bad’ words gone good?

Awe-inspiring Black jazz musicians were "bad." Surfers throw out compliments like "sick" and "gnarly." This inversion is called amelioration.


When my children’s friends think something is really great, they’ll call it “sick.” Michael Jackson famously sang “Because I’m bad, I’m bad,” and meant not that he was naughty but that he was tough and cool. “It’s wicked tasty” is high praise around Boston; in Massachusetts, wicked can be an adverb meaning “to an extreme or impressive degree” and have no moral implications. Why have so many “bad” words gone good?

When words with negative meanings acquire neutral or positive ones, it’s amelioration, which derives from the Latin melior (“better”). When words trade positive meanings for negative ones, it’s pejoration, from peior, Latin for “worse.” Linguistics texts often use nice as the classic example of a word that’s gotten better over time. It also comes from Latin, nescius (“ignorant”), and it meant “foolish” when English borrowed it (via French) in the 14th century. It then began to refer to people and things that were excessively fastidious – an 18th-century writer condemns picky eaters, explaining that it’s “a Troublesome ... Thing to be Nice.” Such affected delicacy was often regarded as a female virtue in the 18th century, bequeathing nice its current inoffensively positive sense.  

Nice has left its unpleasant origins far behind, but an ameliorated sense can coexist with a word’s earlier, negative meanings. Often such cases of inverted meaning develop in slang, language whose purpose is to mark its speakers as members of a particular subculture, differentiating them from the mainstream. What better way to oppose yourself to the stodgy Establishment than to insist, “What you call bad, we call good”?  

Two sports, surfing and skateboarding, have given English a few of these inversions. These cultures have adopted words with connotations of “unpleasant,” “formidable,” or “extreme” and transformed them into high praise: sick, rad (radical), and gnarly, which comes from gnarled, “contorted and knotty,” and could describe the action of the waves.

In the 1920s, Black jazz musicians – marginalized in a predominantly white musical arena – developed a subculture with a rich slang, and turned bad into a compliment. Like sick and rad, bad doesn’t mean “wonderful” in an anodyne way – people and things that are “bad” inspire awe and admiration, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Hip-hop artists of the 1980s strove to be ill

Etymologists have been unable to track the positive sense of wicked to a particular subculture. In any case, in England it’s an adjective and in Massachusetts an adverb. A Bostonian who moved to London might end up saying “That’s wicked wicked!” And it would be great.  

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