Who says bad guys can’t be rehabilitated?
Maybe it’s not so easy to change a person’s character. But in language, time and again, the baddest of the bad turn out to be the goodest of the good.
To turn the title of a hit AMC television show on its head, these words break away from being bad and become superlatives of good.
Take killer, for example. Urbandictionary.com gives its first definition simply as “very cool.” Here’s an excerpt from Killer View, a 2008 thriller by Ridley Pearson. In the title, Killer is ambiguous, but it’s a positive in this scene:
“Walt worked the glider into a wide spiral, climbing into an azure sky, carried aloft by thermals generated by the mountain landmass below. Killer view, Walt thought. To their right, the vast central plain of Idaho stretched out like a lake of desert sand, interrupted occasionally by volcanic cones dormant some ten thousand years.”
Or take the demeaning command Shut up! Alisa Crider notes how it has been hijacked for good in a 2011 blog post she titled “Shut-up! No way?! I can’t believe it!”:
“Stacy London, the fashion expert on What Not to Wear, says ‘Shut-up’ all the time in a similar manner. Her use of the word seems to define shock or serve as a substitute to the phrase ‘Oh my gosh!’”
We talk about insanely good movies, lunch, docking skills, and blueberry oatmeal muffins.
We’re used to New Englanders taking wicked from bad to good: “That’s wicked good.” “He is wicked fast.” There are wicked smart women and (in New Hampshire) a Wicked Smart Horn Band.
Smashing has gone way over to the bright side. On Yahoo! Answers, “Tatertot” explains: “smashing the Competition [means] making every guy looking for a pretty girl look at you and no one else. but once your looks are smashing … speaking of smashing in london they use smashing as a term to suggest a really good time like the best time better then all the rest. so go out there and smash ’em.”
And then there’s sick: “That’s sick! Love it!” The blogger Ashli Brehm comments, “I’ve noticed some youngsters using the phrase these days, That’s sick. I think that if I were hip and cool and said things like fetch and that’s sick, I would be trying to express that that’s awesome … or rad, if you wanna go retro.”
And bad itself can be good. Run-D.M.C. uses it that way in the rap song “Peter Piper”:
“He’s the better of the best best believe he’s the baddest. …
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.”
How is it that negatives turn 180 degrees so easily? Maybe they get extra shock value by appearing in contexts opposite from their usual. Or maybe nature abhors a negative. Or—I’m sure there are better explanations.
It doesn’t seem to work so easily in reverse, though. It’s easy for bad words to turn good, but hard for good words to turn bad. You can get a negative out of That’s good or That’s great only by adding something beyond those words: In speaking, a sarcastic inflection of the voice or gesture of the body; in writing, a negative emoticon or hashtag comment. But those are things you can do with any statement.
So goody-goody remains good. Insane, isn’t it?Return to Top