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There's a group of words — I think they're called determiners — used to indicate number in some way... like many, few, most, etc. During a linguistics class my professor said this was a closed group of words, and that new ones couldn't really fit in it. Then someone shouted out "There's mad people in here!" and everyone laughed. (Mad meaning many, the usage I'm referring to).

How did mad come to fit in this supposedly closed group? Are there other words that were newly coined to fit there?

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I imagine it started out as "a mad crowd of people", which evolved to "a mad number of [things]", after which it was a short step to "mad [things]". But I don't have any support for such a theory, so I'm posting this as a comment rather than an answer. –  Marthaª Dec 3 '10 at 18:11
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Interesting. I've never encountered this usage in England. Must be a predominantly US thing. –  Noldorin Dec 3 '10 at 21:54
    
Another usage: this question is mad interesting. Related: crazy interesting. –  Jon Purdy Dec 4 '10 at 6:17
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up vote 6 down vote accepted

I think it was probably never a determiner but more likely an intensifier. As such, it is a synonym for "insane" as in "That guitar player had insane chops." I hear it most often in terms of having "mad skills" and so forth. In such cases it doesn't mean many, but something more like great or prodigious.

The earliest reference I can think of offhand is from the 2000 film Training Day, in which Denzel Washington tells Ethan Hawke (after Hawke has single-handledly subdued two would-be rapists), "You got mad squabbles, boy." He doesn't mean "many" squabbles, but excellent capabilities in that respect.

If it is ever used to mean a quantity, I think it probably is used as an intensifier and the determiner is left out. Compare it with the Boston area's "wicked" and California's "hella" — they're all used in somewhat the same way.

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I'm from New England and it irks me when people use "wicked" as an adjective instead of an adverb. "That was wicked!" they say. I wait a moment for the other shoe to drop, then say "wicked what?!" –  Jon Purdy Dec 4 '10 at 6:21
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@Jon Purdy: I am a transplant who has lived in the Boston area for over a decade. I hear it used all kinds of ways, but I will grant you that I mostly hear it adverbially, as in "Dude, that was wicked awesome!" But you'll have to allow that it is used adjectivally as well just as much. Walk into a liquor store around here and pick up a 6-pack of Pete's Wicked Ale and you'll see what I mean. –  Robusto Dec 4 '10 at 6:41
    
    
@Jon Purdy: Adjective wicked is even in the dictionary (entry #9). –  Kosmonaut Apr 22 '11 at 21:05
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I can think of numerous examples of adjectives that can tell how many.

A singular common count noun needs a determiner if it is to serve as direct object (and most other places, actually). So if He’s got uncle is not grammatical to you, but He’s got mad uncle is, then mad is a determiner. But that is not the case to me; both seem ungrammatical.

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hehe imagine 'uncle' to be a term indicating awesomeness. "he's got mad uncle, yo!" =P. –  Claudiu Apr 22 '11 at 17:06
    
Heh! But in that case He's got uncle would be grammatical too. Mad still wouldn’t be a determiner. (Uncle would be a non-count noun.) –  Jason Orendorff Apr 22 '11 at 17:17
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