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One example that comes to mind is terrific which originally denoted something quite terrorising while now it has positive connotations... How and why did these changes occur?

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Nice question, I didn't know that... –  Alenanno Apr 23 '11 at 14:28
    
Related to various degrees: What words have opposite meanings in different regions?, English words that are their own antonyms, How often do words change meaning then revert back to their original meaning?, and a few questions about specific words such as ravel, inflammable, impregnate, equivocal, and whatnot. –  RegDwigнt Apr 23 '11 at 14:30
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This "reversal of meaning" is common in slang - terrific is an old textbook example; bad and wicked are a bit more up-to-date. As RegDwight indicates, there are many other reversals not related to slang, but in the case of slang I think we can safely assume it's usually intended to confuse outsiders who don't speak the lingo, and to reinforce group cohesiveness among those who do. –  FumbleFingers Apr 23 '11 at 15:31
    
@FumbleFingers: Agreed, as in Cockney argot. For example, "Eh, don't pick on the little bugger, he's only a dustbin!" (That is, don't hassle him, he's just a kid--which rhymes with dustbin LID.) Or, "Hey, gimme that watch. I wanna take a butcher's!" (That is, give me the watch; I want to take a look--which rhymes with butcher's HOOK.) Weird! –  rhetorician Aug 29 '13 at 1:02

4 Answers 4

See Etymonline:

1660s, "frightening," [...]. Weakened sense of "very great, severe" (e.g. terrific headache) appeared 1809; colloquial sense of "excellent" began 1888.

So the transition was gradual in this case, unlike with many slang words that are used to mean the opposite thing on purpose.

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Take, for example, sick. Even bad is the new good. –  Robusto Apr 23 '11 at 14:47
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Whereas “sick” and “bad” are of the non-gradual opposite class; these words have their extra force precisely because their literal meaning is the opposite, and as the slang-meaning becomes more widespread, I expect they shall fall out of favor. –  Jonathan Sterling Apr 23 '11 at 16:45
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"Decimate" is perhaps one similar, though not the complete opposite. The New Yorker the other week published an article that held that someone "decimated ninety percent of" something. :-) –  Pete Wilson Apr 23 '11 at 18:06
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@Pete in that case the TNY has simply forgotten the numerical value of the term, the destructive portion how remains. I wouldnt call that a reversal. If decimate means death to 1 in 10 the opposite would be something positive to 1 in 10 of some group. –  mP01 Apr 25 '11 at 6:29
    
@PeteWilson, obviously, if someone decimated 90 per cent of something, it means he killed nine per cent of it off. Simple maths. ;) –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 29 '13 at 12:27

The OED says this slang is now especially used for skateboarding and surfing, and the first quotation is from a 1983 UNC-CH Campus Slang by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill:

Sick, unbelievably good: The Fleetwood Mac concert was sick.

The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2007) says:

bad adj 1 good; tough. US, 1897.

sick adj ... 6 excellent; wonderful. On the principle that BAD means 'good' US.

Partridge notes bad is much older, and the OED gives the source as George Ade's story of a black shoeshine boy, Pink Marsh : a story of the streets and town (1897):

She sutny fix up a pohk chop 'at's bad to eat.

It says its originally US slang and means something good or excellent, especially stylish or attractive. The later quotations trace its use through black and jazz slang (1928, 1955, 1959, 1971 and 1989) until more 'mainstream' use is noted in a US newspaper in 1995 and a UK book in 2006.

The OED has another similar meaning of bad which is originally African-American and used of a person who is so dangerous they inspire admiration, or impressively tough, or especially formidably skilled. The earliest quotation is from 1843 but only meaning dangerous or hostile without admiration. Their next earliest is in 1938 in a musical context, as are some of the others, and I can see some overlap of these meanings.


A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2002) gives a possibly unrelated term using sick, but it's somewhat similar:

In knock (one) sick, to astound, 'flabbergast': coll.: - 1923 (Manchon).

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The example that comes immediately to mind for me is "awful". Originally this meant "inspiring awe" or "full of awe". Now of course, we often regard something "awful" as something horrible or in some phrases, as in "an awful lot of money", to mean 'exceedingly great' (as pointed out by Merriam-Webster).

The story I've heard about why there evolved an alternative, negative meaning is that people would use "awful" to deride certain religious groups, basically to mock their devoutness. I would guess this kind of evolved meaning through derision is quite commonplace. For example, if you call someone a "fancy pants", that's quite negative, although strictly speaking, there shouldn't be something negative about someone wearing very nice pants.

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Usually because some spin-doctor (a profession far older than the term) saw an opportunity. Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies (wherein elves are inhumanly cruel):

Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.

Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.

Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.

Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.

Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantments.

Elves are terrific. They beget terror.

The thing about words is that meanings can twist like a snake, and if you want to find a snake look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.

No one ever said elves are nice.

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I find this amusing because "nice" is another adjective whose meaning has changed dramatically... –  kitukwfyer Aug 21 '11 at 19:51
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Great quotation, but an inaccurate answer. As @RegDwight’s answer documents for this case, changes in meaning like this almost arise from the distributed creativity of a speech-community, not from some individual spin-doctor. –  PLL Aug 21 '11 at 21:23
    
I'd disagree with the downvoters, often it does take just a single literally work to introduce a new term to the language or to change the meaning to something different. –  Volodya May 19 at 5:08

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