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When “bad” means “good”

Q: I understand the difference between “feel bad” and “feel badly,” but “love so bad”? Wouldn’t that be best stated as “love so badly”? Perhaps I hear the wrong phrase so often that my mind is muddled.

A: In slang usage, the adjective “bad” means “good,” as we mentioned in a post we wrote some time ago about the influence of African-American slang on English.

The surprising thing about this use of “bad”—apart from the reversed meaning—is that it’s not recent. It dates back to the 19th century, as we’ll explain later.

But in an expression like “love so bad,” the word is an adverb, not an adjective. It’s being used as an intensifier—that is, to intensify the verb it modifies—with the result that “so bad” means “so greatly” or “so much.”

We know what you’re thinking—“bad” as an adverb? Is that legal?

Well, here’s another surprise. The adverb “bad” isn’t new either. It’s been around since the 16th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the earliest adverbial uses, “bad” wasn’t an intensifier. It was used more literally and meant “badly” or “not well.”

The OED’s earliest example is from George Turberville’s The Booke of Faulconrie or Hauking (1575): “He … frames his moode, according as his hawke doth well or bad.”

But by the latter half of the 1600s, “bad” was being used intensively, to emphasize the preceding verb, in the same way that we use “much.”

This 17th-century example is from Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus Triumphatus, a book on witches and apparitions that was written sometime before 1680: “Haunted almost as bad as Mr. Mompesson’s house.”

In the 18th century, Joseph Bellamy wrote in True Religion Delineated (1750): “We hate him so bad, that we cannot find it in our Hearts to love him.”

And in the 19th century, John Russell Bartlett included in his Dictionary of Americanisms (1859) the expression “I want to see him bad.”

The OED also includes a citation from a British novel, Under the Chilterns (1895), written under the pen name Rosemary: “Las’ week there was a job doin’ up at the squire’s, an’ I wanted to go bad.”

Today, in the OED’s estimation, this sense of “bad” as an intensifier is colloquial and nonstandard, and it appears “chiefly” in North American usage. American language authorities, however, aren’t as critical.

As we’ve written before on the blog, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage maintains that the adverb “bad” is interchangeable with “badly” after the verbs “want” and “need.”

Similarly, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has an entry for the adverb “bad” defined as “badly,” and includes the example “doesn’t want it bad enough.” This dictionary treats the usage as standard English.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) doesn’t go quite that far. It says the adverbial use of “bad” as in “his tooth ached so bad” is “common in informal speech but is widely regarded as unacceptable in formal writing.”

Although the OED considers it nonstandard to use “bad” as an intensifier meaning “greatly” or “very much,” it accepts without reservation the use of “badly” in this way.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the slang use of the adjective “bad.” As we mentioned above, the use of “bad” to mean “good” dates back to the 19th century.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says that, especially in African-American English, “bad” is used to mean “wonderful; deeply satisfying; stunningly attractive or stylish; sexy.”

The dictionary’s earliest reference is from George Ade’s Pink Marsh (1897): “She sutny fix up a pohk chop ’at’s bad to eat.” (The book is a collection of sketches about a fictional black shoe-shine man named William Pinckney Marsh, a k a Pink.)

Random House also cites this line from a 1927 review in Variety: “In Duke Ellington’s dance band Harlem has reclaimed its own. … Ellington’s jazzique is just too bad.”

The OED also includes this usage, which it labels as slang. Here “bad” is used, the dictionary says, “as a general term of approbation” and means “good, excellent, impressive; esp. stylish or attractive.”

Oxford’s citations begin with George Ade in 1897 and continue into the present day.

Among them are this definition of “bad” in Leonard Feather’s The Encyclopedia of Jazz (1955): “Bad, adj. Good. (This reverse adjectival procedure is commonly used to describe a performance.)”

The OED also includes this 1980 example, from an article in Time magazine: “Bad as the best and as cool as they come, Smokey is remarkably low key for a soul master.”

But “bad” was used further back in a slightly different and possibly unrelated slang sense.

Both Oxford and Random House have entries for “bad” meaning “formidable” and hence “formidably skilled,” with examples dating from the 1840s and ’50s.

We find some of these early citations ambiguous; the speaker’s meaning isn’t always clear-cut. As far as we can tell, the first example in which this “badness” is clearly viewed with admiration appeared in the 1870s.

Random House gives an example from The Colored Cadet at West Point (1878), an autobiography by Henry O. Flipper, the first black graduate of the U.S. Military Academy.

In this passage, Flipper quotes from a newspaper article that mocked his post-graduation homecoming in 1877:

“A darkey would approach the young man, cautiously, feel of his buttons and clothes, and enthusiastically remark: ‘Bad man wid de gub-ment strops on!’ ” (The newspaper article included this among “expressions of admiration.”)

American Heritage has an interesting note on the positive uses of “bad,” which the dictionary says “illustrate a favorite creative device of informal and slang language—using a word to mean the opposite of what it ‘really’ means.”

“This is by no means uncommon; people use words sarcastically to mean the opposite of their actual meanings on a daily basis,” the dictionary says.

“What is more unusual is for such a usage to be generally accepted within a larger community,” the note continues. “Perhaps when the concepts are as basic as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ this general acceptance is made easier.”

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