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.
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.