The Good And The Bad: Words That Can’t Choose

WATCH: What’s So Wrong With “Nice”?

The positive

In the 1700s, nice took on a very agreeable meaning, one that stuck. It means, of course, "some satisfactory, pleasant, virtuous, respectable and proper." But, its earlier definitions were quite the opposite.

The negative

Nice used to mean "silly" (and you remember that silly is not good . . . at least anymore). Or, more specifically, "foolish, senseless, or even stupid." From the Old French nice ("weak, poor, foolish") and the Latin nescius ("ignorant, unaware"), it also meant "strange, slothful, or cowardly."

Nice was not something you wanted to be referred to until around the late 1700s, when the positive definitions began to outweigh the negative. Who knew the histories of these common words were so complex!

The positive

Ah, terrificWe know it as a positive superlative in today's lexicon, right?

Currently meaning (to most) "extremely good; wonderful," it would be hard to think of terrific as a bad thing. But, terrific did in fact have a dark past. Want to know what it was? Click ahead.

The negative

Terrific is rooted in the 1600s Latin word terrificus (“causing terror”) and the French, terrere (“fill with fear”). By the 1700s, the intensity of terrific lessened, to mean "something very great or severe." And, in another 100 years, (by the mid- to late-1800s), it came to mean "something very good or even excellent."

This is a perfect example of something called amelioration, where words undergo a semantic shift in meaning or connotation, due to a variety of forces that range from socio-cultural to linguistic evolution.

The negative

The word bad is well, just that. Its original meaning is still the most common one in use today: "not good in any manner or degree."

Yet, this word has seen a wild ride down the road of positivity as well, and now seemingly enjoys a parallel life in certain circles. Click ahead to see how bad has turned good.

The positive

The lingo of the jazz world in mid-century America is theorized to be where the word bad turned good, becoming "something very cool or extraordinary." "That was a bad sax solo, Freddie!"

In the '60s and '70s, bad was quite common (to mean "good"), and sick and wicked soon became sidekicks, the wingmen of inverted words. Clearly, young people enjoy derailing their parents' linguistic routines by turning words upside down . . . it's quite powerful.

The negative

Today, bimbo means "an attractive but stupid young woman, especially one with loose morals" (to most). So, if this is the current meaning, and it's featured in our slideshow, that means it had a positive past . . . right? 

The positive

Here’s a leap that's hard to fathom: Bimbo in Italian means "baby, a male baby" (female is bimba). And, somehow (around 1920), the word in English came to mean "a brutish or doltish man." However, it quickly came to also mean "a woman of questionable virtue." Then, sometime around the 1950s, it became used almost exclusively to mean "a dumb, but likely attractive and virtuously questionable woman."

Why did bimbo, the masculine form, become a derogatory word for a female? And, why did it cease being a derogatory term for men?

(The ‘90s sitcom Seinfeld featured an episode that coined the word mimbo, for a male bimbo. Maybe we just need to add that word to our lexicon to balance this one out.)

The negative

Here’s another word aimed at wanton women that has a more innocent history. In the early 20th century, the word wench evolved to mean "a lusty, rough-edged woman," and that is still its implication today. But, its early Middle English meaning was something quite different . . . .

The positive

The earliest use of wenche (in the 1200s and 1300s) meant simply "a young girl, maid, or female child." Over the next several hundred years, it became used to refer to lower-class working women (milkmaids, beer servers), and also as a term of endearment for one’s sweetheart or daughter (that just seems wrong!).

By the early 20th century, the word came to mean a lusty, rough-edged woman more than anything.

The negative

We know that sad is a word that "describes a person or thing imbued with sorrow or distress." But, this little word has a lot of history, and you might be surprised by its beginnings . . . .

The positive

The original use of sad meant "to feel content, or to be sated." That morphed over time to include "feeling weary, settled, and then strong; dignified, learned, and discrete"; and finally, in the 1400s, "to feel sorrowful and heavy-hearted."

These meanings have all been in play, at different periods of time, since the 1200s, but sad's current, negative meaning has been the dominant one since the 1800s.

The positive

Generally, when we use the word tremendous, it has a positive connotation ("extraordinary in excellence"). And, another common meaning usually signifies something especially impactful ("extraordinarily great in size, amount, or intensity").

In a sentence like, “He did a tremendous job,” the word is used both as a positive adjective and to emphasize impact. However, the Latin root of tremendous may surprise you . . . .

The negative

In the 1600s, the Latin tremendus meant something “that is to be trembled at, fearful, dreadful, frightful, terrible.”

In the 1700s, it began to morph to reflect something worthy of awe or of important significance, and by the 1800s it took on a more positive luster. A “tremendous fellow” was a good one, indeed.

The negative

While its original use was very positive (more on that in a minute), silly came to describe a person as "powerless and helpless," then "trifling, frail or flimsy," as well as "feeble or unsophisticated."

The last transformation, around the 1600s, focused on the unsophisticated person being one who was rather foolish and lacking in good judgment, which is how we use the word today (in its darkest sense). So, how was silly a good thing?

The positive

Silly has a religious root, from the 1200s, meaning "blessed and happy" (from the Germanic seely, meaning "blessed, holy, innocent"). It really took a beating after this though.

The negative

We define egregious today as, “extraordinary in some bad way; glaring; flagrant,” and that’s how it was used in the 1500s and 1600s too. Yet, at the same time, a parallel (and positive) definition was also quite common . . . .

The positive

Egregious is derived from the Latin ēgregius, meaning "outstanding, excellent, splendid," and it was used from the 1500s through the 1800s to mean "distinguished and eminent," or "extraordinary and striking."

But, weirdly enough, at the same time it meant "conspicuously bad, wrong or offensive." By the late 1800s, the negative meaning pretty much overtook the positive.

The positive

Today, we use prestigious to mean "something or someone conferring high status and respect." But, in the 1600s and 1700s, it had a far murkier, darker meaning.

The negative

From the Latin praestigiosus (“full of tricks”), prestigious has come a long way from its original meaning (which was rooted in deception). From the 1500s to the 1800s, the word pertained to something or someone characterized by cheating or trickery.

The positive

To doodle is a harmless pastime, with a pen in hand, right? Well, the original sense of the word isn't so sweet.

The negative

Doodle derives from the German dudenkopf (among other variations), "a fool." And, doodle as "fool" meets the American Revolution in "Yankee Doodle," the American folk song. The tune was originally sung by the British to mock the foolish fashion sense of American Revolutionary soldiers.

Dawdle, "to waste time," may be the actual source for the current meaning of doodle (and the cause of it's positive shift).

Positive and negative?

How about the word slut? Many see this word as a negative description for promiscuous women, but now it's been reclaimed by feminists and commonly describes desire or wanting it all.

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