When we wish to refer to people who are living an affluent lifestyle or simply enjoying favorable circumstances in any particular area, we often say they are well off.

So far so good.

But listening to a podcast this afternoon, I heard the host try to express the opposite condition, and the term he used ("badly off") clanged in my ear. It just doesn't sound right.

Still, if we look at the positive expression "well off" we might judge that well functions as an adverb and off as an adjective. So if you want to introduce the negative condition, the corresponding adverb is badly (or poorly, etc.). But it still sounds awful.

Funnily enough, my ear's inner alarm remains silent when I hear someone say bad off, as in "They were pretty bad off in those days." So is that the answer? If so, why doesn't it yield to my immediate grammatical analysis? Why should bad off sound acceptable in that context but not poor off or some other combination of adjective/adjective? And it's not as if I'm trying to force-fit the corresponding negative construction: those already exist, and are heard all the time. What gives?

Note that I mean this question in the very narrow scope described above. I am not looking for synonyms of the negative. I don't want destitute or unfortunate or any of the others, and I will scowl at those who attempt to run me through with a thesaurus.

Well, well

I like J.R.'s contention that the word well is problematic in and of itself. Still, I'm not sure the other part of the team, off, should get off scot free. It has been overloaded in meaning for centuries. It can mean apart from, in a state of disuse, rusty ["His game was off due to a hangover"], not operational at this time ["The oven was off"], inaccurate ["The figures are off"], extending from, abstaining from ["He's been off alcohol for years"], and so on. Which is why when I hear "badly off" it makes me feel that off is being emphasized when it is not meant to carry the semantic freight with respect to positive or negative values.

Off with their heads!

Additionally, and with respect to the latter point, I see in the comments that some of you are trotting out Google word and book searches, which may or may not apply here. (Full disclosure: I have mixed feelings about the use of such sources.) So it is worth pointing out that, taken out of context, the terms "bad off" and "badly off" do not always refer to the purported opposite of "well off":

He aimed for the target, but was badly off the mark.

They were badly off in their estimate of how much time the project would take.

Her performance was bad off the get-go.

That last is colloquial, and may be straining the issue, but even if the search fails on account of the ambiguity of one term, it nevertheless fails for both.

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    ...it sounds a bit "dated" to me, but it's not as if badly off hasn't been used as the opposite of well off, well-to-do. – FumbleFingers Nov 30 '13 at 2:56
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    Well on just doesn't work. – hildred Nov 30 '13 at 3:11
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    @Dodgie - I believe that's addressed in the opening line of the question: living an affluent lifestyle or simply enjoying favorable circumstances in any particular area. – J.R. Nov 30 '13 at 10:33
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    Funny you mention your inner alarm being silent on bad off, but noisying up for badly off. For me, it's the exact opposite: I have no problem with_badly off_, which is a perfectly common phrase to me, one I would use myself with no hesitation; but bad off turns the back of my head into a veritable cacophony of alarms. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 30 '13 at 14:15
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    @Ledda: I want someone to shed some light on what the grammatical aspects of the phrase are really, and whether they matter in this context. Should the parts be construed as adverb/adjective, with a corresponding negative polarity? If not, what? – Robusto Dec 17 '13 at 11:08

I think part of the issue is the way you have parsed well off. Consider, for instance, that the Free Dictionary defines well-off as a hyphenated adjective, and speculates that it derives from "to come well off" where off in this case indicates "circumstanced" with the overall meaning then being to emerge from [sth] in good circumstances.

If we start with that phrase — to emerge from [sth] in good circumstances — and work backward, we'd have to emerge from [sth] in bad circumstances. From this, we can jump to bad off, but I think we should look more closely at the other phrase that was mentioned, namely "to come well off."

It's an odd phrase, but I found it in use in Google Books, so I tried the most obvious opposite "to come poorly off". Sure enough, that's in use, or at least it was in literary use in the 1800s. That suggests strongly to me that the most appropriate negation of 'well-off' is actually 'poorly-off'.

However, the phrase "to come badly off" is also in regular literary use in the 1800s, so 'badly-off' could be perfectly cromulent as well.

Suffice to say, depending on how you look at it, any of bad off, badly off or poorly off could suit.


Badly off may sound inelegant compared to well-off, simply because we are becoming accustomed to hearing, saying and even writing; wrong, bad and good as adverbs.

All of the examples below are taken from Macmillan Dictionary.

  1. Someone had tied the rope on wrong.
  2. It hurts real bad when I run.
  3. He's doing pretty good at his new job.

I also think it is the auxiliary, be, in "they are badly off" which might be to blame for the clanging noise in your head. I'll try my best to explain what I mean.

I am badly off, to my ears doesn't sound bad.

In that last sentence bad is an adjective and the verb, sound, is a linking verb.

When bad is used in conjunction with other linking verbs, the resulting sentences appear normal and correct, so we have no problem with saying; that looks bad; it smells bad; it sounds bad; or it tastes bad. Similarly we don't have a problem with saying "I am well" to describe how we are feeling but when we use the adverb, badly in its place we have, "I am badly". Alarm bells, sirens and foghorns should be blasting in our ears now. Obviously, badly isn't the antonym of well, in this context any of the following would be more appropriate: poorly; ill; or not well.

As a result, "bad off" may sound more acceptable in conjunction with the auxiliary be, "They are bad off" sounds better because you/we/Americans are used to hearing the shorter phrase "They are bad"; badly, just doesn't work in the same way. I also suspect that when we wish to describe a family or a person that is not well off, we'll tend to say, poor, without thinking twice. If however, that word feels too harsh and/or it might be deemed as offensive, then a euphemism will be used; not well-off; badly off; not rolling in money etc.

Macmillan Dictionary defines the expression, badly off, someone who is badly off does not have much money

They were worse off now than when they started the business.

I think Macmillan has come up with an acceptable corresponding negative to "well off" with worse off. It's not a perfect antonym, but your threat of scowling has put me off looking in a thesaurus. :)

Edit: I checked in The Chambers Dictionary 12th Edition, and the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (1995) and neither one listed bad off, both have badly off. The first states: adj poorly provided esp with money. While the OALD says: having little money; poor: "She's been very badly off since losing her job."

  • Thanks. I think your note about the comparative form (worse off) does point in an interesting direction. +1 – Robusto Nov 30 '13 at 19:36
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    The OED has a late 19th century citation that opposes the well-off with the ill-off, suggesting that since well and ill were considered opposites, this might not have been seen the way we see it now. Saying that a family that was once a well-off one is now considerably worse off if not downright ill off might possibly fly in the right speaker or writer, but it might be hard to pull off in a more general case. – tchrist Dec 1 '13 at 14:16

When we wish to refer to people who are living an affluent lifestyle or simply enjoying favorable circumstances in any particular area, we often say they are well off.

If we wish to refer to people who are living the opposite of an affluent lifestyle, we say they are poor.

If we wish to refer to people who are not enjoying favorable circumstances in any particular area, we say they are doing poorly.

For many senses of the word well, poorly is listed as an antonym.

If your podcaster wanted to express the opposite of well-off, it wouldn't have offended my ear to hear him use poorly off -- or, simply poor.

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    And forgive my lunge with the thesaurus, but the term that comes to mind as the opposite of well-off is down-and-out. – Gnawme Dec 17 '13 at 3:44
  • This seems like obviously the correct answer to me. – verbose Feb 11 '17 at 12:06

I think the problem rests in how the word well doesn't always have a fitting antonym.

Let's say I go to work on Monday, and a coworker politely asks, “How are you doing?”

I could respond “I am good,” although some pedants might overhear that comment. Knowing that I frequent ELU, they might use that as a beachhead to attack what they perceive as shoddy grammar skills. Even though I'm convinced I would triumph, I'd rather not get dragged into that age-old debate, so I respond, “I am well, thank you.”

The same dialog happens on Tuesday and Wednesday. However, on Thursday, I'm feeling a bit suboptimal – not so under-the-weather that I could justify a sick day, but I would be a liar if I told my affable coworker that I was well. So, as soon as the friendly question is asked, I start searching my mind for a suitable antonym. “I am...” What am I? I am not exactly ‘well,’ but what's a good word for what I am?

As the day goes on, I mull over this opposite-of-well problem some more, and I notice there are many times when poorly works as a suitable antonym for well, and other times when ill does the job. Yet in some situations I feel stumped, and concede that I'm better off using not. For example:

  • Dan looks like a slob standing next to Martha, who is, as always, well-dressed and well-groomed. On the other hand, Dan is poorly dressed and not well-groomed.

  • Kevin – always the nice guy – is gaining some notoriety thanks to his new patent. Kevin, therefore, is well-mannered and well-known in the company. But the new guy, Chuck, who sits in the next cubicle over, strikes me as a real jerk. He is ill-mannered and unknown – although that anonymity could soon be replaced by a bad reputation if he doesn't watch his step.

  • Vera just got a new raise. Seeing her pleasant, confident smile as she climbs out of her brand new Lexus every morning, anyone can tell she's well-adjusted and well off. But Adam, the company janitor, is going through a rough spell. He just went through a rough divorce, and a good percentage of his meager wages are going to his ex-wife as child support, seeing that they had four kids together. He's, well, even though I think he's resilient, and that he'll do just fine in the long run, I'd just say he's not so well-adjusted at the moment, and not too well-off, either – although perhaps you'd prefer to use one of the alternatives. Maybe I should invite Adam over for Chistmas; we've all been well-informed about how that can be a rough time of year for those who are struggling with both family and finances.

  • +1 for the analysis. Two things to ponder: Chuck will soon be well-known for being ill-mannered. And well-adjusted sounds to me like a personal judgment (not holding it together well) whereas the others are (at least ostensibly) factual descriptions. I'm not too happy about the description of Vera either; many well-off executives have a bright happy smile as they go about torturing flies or planning another reorganization (two very similar occupations). – TimLymington Nov 30 '13 at 12:00
  • @Tim - Fair enough. This is all fictional, of course, and I penned the scenario under the assumption that I knew the individuals well enough to differentiate between the real deal and the façade. – J.R. Nov 30 '13 at 15:41
  • +1: I like this, but I still have some reservations. See my edit to the question. – Robusto Nov 30 '13 at 18:11
  • As for well being a problem in and of itself, we have the same problem with good. What would be the corresponding negative to good-natured? I would propose ill-tempered, not bad-natured. – J.R. Dec 2 '13 at 13:57
  • @J.R.: But bad-tempered is commoner than ill-tempered, and you cannot be well-tempered unless you are a bar of metal (or a clavier). – TimLymington Dec 4 '13 at 10:36

I once heard a story on NPR about entitled people who cut in line. A woman went to the head of a long line, offering no excuse except that she felt badly about doing so. "I'm sorry, I feel badly, but I must do this," she kept offering. She got away with it. The person telling the story was unsettled and pondered what feeling badly meant, and decided that the woman did, indeed, feel badly.

In her estimation (and I'm inclined to agree with her), "I feel badly" meant that she had a deficiency in feeling, that she didn't do it well. In truth, if she did not have this deficiency, she might have the same degree of empathy that stops us all from cutting in line. A normal person does not cut in line because it would make them feel bad.

This makes me pause whenever I'm inclined to say "badly" instead of "bad" simply because the former sounds more proper.

I've become a proponent of bad happens.

Badly has been badly misused.

There is not a hint of ambiguity if one hears that another is bad off. But there is no such complete lack of ambiguity when someone is badly off.

What (in this context) does badly off mean? It almost makes one wonder where the responsibility lies.

Is life justified in treating him badly? Did he do something badly which got him there? Was he, for instance, bad at his job? Or did he plan badly, and thus badly miss his mark? Or, does bad just happen?

If bad happens, no mental gymnastics are required. Plainly, he is just bad off.

  • I agree that badly has been misused, and that it isn't right for the negative here. But you haven't convinced me that the parallel you've set up is the best test. Still, +1 and welcome to ELU. If you can convince me I'll be happy to award you the bounty. Hey, it has to go to somebody, so it might as well be you. – Robusto Dec 17 '13 at 3:01
  • ? bad off is clearly the antonym to *good off. I wouldn't use either myself, but you may wish to; just not in opposition to well off. – TimLymington Dec 18 '13 at 12:43
  • @Tim, bad can also be the antonym to well (the adjective) in some cases: “How are you?” —— “I'm quite well” vs. “I'm quite bad”. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 3 '14 at 0:26

An opposite to being (economically) "well off" is struggling. One may append the adverb "economically" for context, which would make it "struggling economically."

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    Thanks, but as I emphasize in the question itself, "I am not looking for synonyms of the negative. I don't want destitute or unfortunate or any of the others, and I will scowl at those who attempt to run me through with a thesaurus." – Robusto Nov 30 '13 at 19:33

Yes there are many negative words for 'well-off'. For example: 'poor' and 'destitute' pasttenses antonyms

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    Read paragraph 6 of my question. And this comment is me scowling at you. – Robusto Feb 11 '17 at 13:15

protected by Robusto Feb 11 '17 at 15:43

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