Today I saw an idiomatic road sign: "Pretty Muddy". I found this lack of strict English on a road sign unusual (on par with my "Dead Slow" official speed limit sign in Leeds, pic below), but as it turned out it's a charity race and the signs were merely directions.

This got me thinking however, how do words like "pretty" and "dead" as intensifying adverbs end up in English? Taking "pretty" as an example, when did this first appear?

traffic sign saying "Dead Slow"

I wonder how fast you have to be going before they stop you. How would this hold up in court?

  • What about 'real slow' or 'way slow'? Wait is this question about 'dead' or 'pretty'? I couldn't find 'pretty' in the picture. – Mitch Sep 8 '13 at 15:51
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    Note: the ‘dead’ in ‘dead slow’ is not the adverbial intensifier found in, “It was dead good” etc. ‘Dead slow’ is a set phrase (taken from nautical terminology) that means going as slow as possible, without losing steerage. It doesn’t really make proper sense to use it for cars, though, because you don’t lose steerage with cars the way you do with boats. For bicycles it might work better. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 8 '13 at 15:52
  • I didn't indicate that "pretty" was in the picture, just another example. – James Webster Sep 8 '13 at 16:04

The OED’s earliest citations for the word as an adjective are from the Old English period, when it meant ‘cunning, crafty’ and subsequently ‘clever, skilful, able’. It was only in the fifteenth century that it came to have meanings associated with pleasing appearance.

The earliest citation for its use as an adverb meaning ‘to a considerable extent; fairly, moderately; rather, quite’ is from 1565.

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  • When is the "Old English period" please? – James Webster Sep 8 '13 at 16:22
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    The OED also gives the use as an adjective meaning "considerable, sizable" from 1475. (E.g., Their bowes be short, and of a prettie strength.) It's not difficult to see how it might have from its meaning of "pleasing" to "sizable", and then to an intensifier. – Peter Shor Sep 8 '13 at 16:23
  • @JamesWebster. With the usual caution about the unrealistic nature of dividing lines, from the beginnings to the Norman invasion in 1066. – Barrie England Sep 8 '13 at 16:29
  • Until when approx? – TrevorD Sep 8 '13 at 23:26
  • @TrevorD: "to the Norman invasion in 1066." – siride Sep 9 '13 at 1:10

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