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The reason I ask is that the feeling evoked by the term badass feels to me like a human universal, so ought to have synonyms in any era. Trying to confirm my hypothesis, I hunted through the Online Etymology Dictionary, where I hoped to find archaic substitutes, which unforunately did not provide me a direct history for badass. Instead, it directed me toward "bad + ass", which feels sort of strange to me since I'm not sure you can get the feeling of this word by breaking it down into constituents -- one needs real-life examples, really. The "bad" of badass seemed relevant towards the meaning, though, and here's what the Etymology Dictionary has to say:

[Bad's] [i]ronic use as a word of approval is said to be at least since 1890s orally, originally in Black Eng., emerging in print 1928 in a jazz context. It might have emerged from the ambivalence of expressions like bad nigger, used as a term of reproach by whites, but among blacks sometimes representing one who stood up to injustice, but in the U.S. West bad man also had a certain ambivalence:

These are the men who do most of the killing in frontier communities, yet it is a noteworthy fact that the men who are killed generally deserve their fate. [Farmer & Henley]

Right, so bad and hence badass is a modern term, with the former appearing no earlier than 1928, and the latter having a '70s era feel for me. My question is, what were people using to describe badasses like William the Conqueror, William Wallace, and Samuel Whittemorein their time?

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Apparently, usage of the term goes way back for the Dayaks of Borneo! ;) –  Callithumpian Mar 25 '11 at 14:21
    
@Callithumpian Wow, that is bizarre. Is that just a massive coincide or what? –  Uticensis Mar 25 '11 at 15:53
    
Or something about the word is phonologically universal! –  Callithumpian Mar 25 '11 at 16:08
    
William the Conqueror was known in Normandy as Guillaume le Bastarde, but that has more to do with his roots than anything else. –  klypos Jul 19 '12 at 0:34
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8 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

In the movie Patton, General George Patton tells Erwin Rommel how he defeated him. "Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book."

I can't tell if the usage is actually from the WWII era, but the movie came out the 1970s, and the term has pretty much the same implications as badass when it's used as a term of admiration. (See Magnificent Bastard.)

However, examination of Patton's actual quotes suggests that he commonly used the term bastard, so it's plausible.

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I don't know where this is from; it's unattributed on Discordian Quotes.

There's a word in Old English, "aeglaca", which is used in the epic poem Beowulf to describe both the protaganist and his nemesis, Grendel. It can be translated a few ways — "well-known and feared warrior" or some variation being most common. But that sort of scholarly language sacrifices a lot of the relevance and connotation. I vastly prefer an alternative translation which I think preserves both: "notorious motherfucker". Beowulf and Grendel were both notorious motherfuckers. You don't fuck with a notorious motherfucker, or you get your fucking arm ripped off.

Aeglaca sounds like just the sort of thing you're looking for.

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Lionize or lionized could convey the meaning in some situations.

Bramah is a better equivalent for badass.

I was told Mr Crapper invented the first flush toilet, a few years later Mr Bramah made an improved version. Bramah's name became a synonym for excellence, whereas Mr Crapper's name came to express something inferior. Now I've checked, it appears that Bramah pre-dated Crapper, who did improve a few parts but did not invent the thing.

Whatever, bramah was used colloquially to signify high quality in many parts.

That said, I have not heard anyone actually use the word in conversation since the 1960s, when it was still in use in East Lancashire.

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An obsolete term formerly used was "mucker," which died out around the 1940s. But if you want to go way back, consider Homeric epithets, e.g., "Odysseus, Master Craftsman," "Odysseus, Expert Strategist," etc. With epithets, you can build each variant of "badass" ad hoc.

And didn't Bugs Bunny once greet Elmer Fudd with, "What's up, Nimrod?" (i.e., "mighty hunter").

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I was looking for something else, and found in passing that mucker could plausibly derive from from the Old Norse given name 'Makkr' a form of 'Magnus' meaning 'great' . –  klypos Jul 19 '12 at 8:51
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With strong positive connotations valorous might be used.

Focusing on the personal power of the individual puissant could be used

With negative connotations outlaw could be used.

Each has its own drawbacks though and non quite encapsulate the meaning

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When used negatively, and as a noun, I would go for ruffian, rapscallion, rustler, or reaver.

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A badass may be any one of these things however none of them imply that the individual is badass. A cut-purse or pickpocket would be a ruffian and a younger one a rapscallion however its unlikely you would consider them badass. –  Robb Mar 25 '11 at 14:32
    
Could you please include definitions? –  Uticensis Mar 25 '11 at 15:05
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I would suggest:

  • rogue (from 1560s)
  • rascal (from 1200s)
  • bruiser (from 1540s)

Of the three, bruiser comes closest in meaning to badass, I think, as it suggests someone who is strong and capable, someone you don't want to mess with.

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In certain (slightly negative contexts) cocksure might work - it expresses the arrogance and overconfidence implied when badass is used to indicate someone who does not care. However, I'm not sure when this word came into existence.

Its doesn't work so well when its used positively though... (I'm feeling like a badass Mr Cool today)

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