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Inverted meanings: sick, bad, and wicked

A common trick of slang is to invert meanings, so that seemingly negative words are used as terms of approval. Bad and wicked are two established examples, although it may surprise you to see just how far back their positive uses go.

The OED records ‘bad’ and ‘wicked’ used in a positive sense as long ago as 1897 and 1920 respectively:

She sutny fix up a pohk chop ‘at’s bad to eat. (George Ade’s Pink Marsh, 1897)

‘Tell ’em to play “Admiration”!’ shouted Sloane. ‘Phoebe and I are going to shake a wicked calf.’ (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, 1920)

Sick is a more recent arrival, first seen as a US synonym for ‘excellent’ or ‘very impressive’ in 1983:

…it was a sick party and there were tons of cool people there.

It is particularly common in skateboard and snowboard culture, where it can be used to imply an element of risk and danger, as in these examples from the OED Reading Programme:

It is a sick board and worth every penny of your hard-earned cash. (2007, On Board)

The skating was sick and although it isn’t quite the media darling that snowboarding is, everyone was stoked on it. (2000, Snowboard UK)

As this type of meaning inversion crops up quite often, what are the odds on ‘You look totally vile in that top’ becoming a compliment at some point in the future?

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.