Etymology Grammar

How ridiculous is “ridiculously”?

Q: I keep noticing the use of “ridiculously” as a substitute for “tremendously,” as in “She’s ridiculously chic.” This may be a passing fad, but I don’t like it. Do you think I should just get a life?

A: People use “ridiculously” in two distinct ways.

First, they use it more or less literally  to mean “in a ridiculous or silly way,” much as they might use “absurdly.” 

Second, they use it as a simple intensifier meaning very, extremely, extraordinarily, and (as you point out) tremendously.

And sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

We happen to think both usages are legitimate, but you apparently object to the use of  “ridiculously” as a mere intensifier.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and other standard dictionaries we checked seem to support you in this.

They don’t define “ridiculously” per se, but they simply list it as the adverbial form of the adjective “ridiculous,” which is defined as absurd, silly, preposterous, laughable, and so on.

However, we think the lexicographers at these standard dictionaries are behind the times, and the Oxford English Dictionary agrees with us.

The OED’s primary definition of “ridiculously” is pretty much the same as the ones in standard dictionaries, but the OED has this additional meaning: “Later also simply as an intensifier.”

It’s hard to tell from the published references in the OED exactly when the adverb evolved from its ridiculous beginnings to become an intensifier.

The earliest citation, which uses the word in its absurd sense, is from John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563): “So foolyshly and ridiculously seekyng holes and corners to hyde them selues in.”

The first citation that seems to use the word in its emphatic sense is from Mariana, a 1940 novel by Monica Enid Dickens (great-granddaughter of Charles):

“The gravel drive, where even a tired horse used to jog-trot because his stable was near, was ridiculously short.”

But even in that quotation, one might argue about the meaning. Does the author mean merely “very” short, or something closer to “absurdly” or even “preposterously” short? That’s what we mean when we say it’s sometimes hard to tell.  

Perhaps the conclusion is that one should be cautious when using “ridiculously” as a simple intensifier. It implies a value judgment on the part of the speaker, a nuance that’s lacking in more neutral intensifiers like “extremely.”

And by the way, the OED also has an entry for the adjective “ridiculous” as jazz slang meaning outstanding or excellent. Here’s a 1959 citation: “His technique is ridiculous!”

So should you get a life? Don’t be ridiculous. We think it’s good that you care about the English language.

But like you, English has a life. And like all living things, it’s a work in progress.

Check out our books about the English language