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Time magazine carries the list of ‘Top 10 Bad-ass wives’ (in the world, or in history) in its July 21 issue with the lead copy:

When a comedian tried to throw a pie in her husband's face, Wendi Deng, wife of Rupert Murdoch, leaped into the fray, blasting the man with a fierce right hand. TIME takes a look at other wives who kick ass.

In the “Top 10 bad-ass wives” included are The Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, Queen Isabella of Spain, Eleanor Roosevelt, Sarah Palin, Michelle Obama, and Elin Nordegren who wielded a golf club, chasing her husband, Tiger Woods around their mansion in Florida—"That's pretty bad-ass," according to the writer.

Though I interpret “bad-ass” wives as “tough or aggressive,” as Oxford Online Dictionary defines, I'm not sure if the word is used in a positive sense or in a sarcastic tone, because another dictionary, Merriam-Webster, defines “bad-ass” as (1) Ready to cause or get into trouble, followed by (2) of formidable strength or skill. Is the meaning of “bad-ass” in “bad-ass wives” and “That's pretty bad-ass” the same?

Also, I wonder how ‘bad-ass’ came to mean ‘tough and aggressive’ or ‘ready to cause trouble,’ whichever. I searched the origin of the word on Google in vain. Can somebody teach me?

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The full Oxford English Dictionary has, I think, a clearer and more complete definition of the term as an adjective:

Belligerent or intimidating; ruthless; tough. Also as a general term of approval: formidable, superlative (cf. bad adj. 13)

and as a noun:

A tough, aggressive, intimidating, or uncompromising person

Following the reference to bad gives us:

Originally in African-American usage. Of a person: (originally) dangerous or menacing to a degree which inspires awe or admiration; impressively tough, uncompromising, or combative; (in later use also) possessing other desirable attributes to an impressive degree; esp. formidably skilled.

As Thursagen has pointed out, the phrase bad-ass (or, as the OED prefers, badass) goes back to the 1950s. The earliest citation for the adjectival form is:

1955 J. Blake Let. 28 Dec. in Joint (1971) ii. 110 Wanted to be a hard-nose badass type.

But: Sarcastic examples came along soon thereafter. Under the noun form we find:

1956 Amer. Speech 31 191 A marine who postures toughness is sarcastically labeled a badass.

Given a culture that finds toughness and aggression desirable or impressive qualities, there's not much of semantic leap between "impressively tough, uncompromising, or combative" and "formidably skilled" or "formidable, superlative."

In your examples, yes, I think the meaning of "bad-ass wives" and "that's pretty bad-ass" is pretty much the same: impressive and formidable, and perhaps also intimidating. The wives you listed could all be described in that way, and also as tough and aggressive. I definitely don't think the term was being used sarcastically; like Thursagen, I think it was intended positively and admiringly.

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Wiktionary defines "bad-ass" as:

1.cool, awesome, heroic, admirable

Dictionary.com gives the origin:

badass "tough guy," 1950s U.S. slang, from bad + ass (2).

Is the term being used in a positive or negative manner? Wendi is highly admired. Queen Cleopatra has gone down in history as an immortal figure. Michelle Obama is seen as a great woman with decisive skills.

I think it's being used in the second sense that you gave, "formidable strength and skill", meaning that these women are admirable and heroic due to what they have done.

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"Wendi is highly admired." -- I don't know if I would go that far. She's clearly a gold-digging slut (which some people consider a bad thing) who hit the mother lode, but you gotta give her props for fearlessly defending her claim. – Malvolio Aug 8 '11 at 3:09

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