1

"Ridiculous" means laughable, laughable because it is obviously and hilariously not good enough.

However in English "a ridiculous amount of money" is "a ridiculously large amount of money". In general it seems that "a ridiculous amount" is always "a ridiculously large amount":

In my opinion this is an antiphrasis exactly as "terrific", "tremendous", "awful", "sick", "bad", "wicked", etc., when used with a positive connotation.

When an antiphrasis becomes popular, a proper semantic change occurs, in these cases it would be called an amelioration. But it is important to stress how a semantic change of this type is often originated from an antiphrasis.

If you agree with this premise, my question is: when and how was the meaning of the adjective "ridiculous" inverted from "obviously and hilariously not good" to "absurdly great" when referred to an amount of money?

Otherwise, can you explain why you do not agree with the premise?

2

To answer the question of drift of meaning, you need a historical dictionary, like OED. I'm not going to reproduce the whole entry.

ridiculous

A. adj

1.

a. Arousing or deserving mockery or derision; absurd, preposterous; risible.

α.
1533 T. Elyot Of Knowl. Wise Man ii. 41 Horrible, monstrouse, and in some fact ridiculouse: that is to say, to be laughed at.

β.
1575 G. Gascoigne Glasse of Gouernem. iv. vii. sig. I. ivv, They haue not shamed, by a vaine shew of learning to defend such propositions, as seeme most rediculous & estranged from reason.

b. Eng. regional and U.S. regional (south. and south Midland). Outrageous, scandalous; indecent. Now rare.

1839 G. C. Lewis Gloss. Words Herefordshire 87 Ridiculous, scandalous, morally wrong.

c. orig. Jazz slang. Outstanding, excellent; unbelievably good. Cf. crazy adj. 4d.

1959 Jazz Summer 209 His technique is ridiculous!

1c [“outstanding, excellent”] is obviously an example of antiphrasis, and is four hundred years later than the word’s first appearance in English.

However, 1b [“outrageous, indecent”] is only a short step from “preposterous” but that’s the meaning which would fit “a ridiculous amount of money”. I don’t believe that’s antiphrasis: it’s a shift in meaning, not a complete reversal. (And I think I might dispute the rare tag.)

3

I'd suspect that this is not so much amelioration as a broadening, so a 'ridiculous amount of money' is a comment on the situation rather than on the amount of money being referred to per se. It would be unusual to speak of there being a 'ridiculous amount of money' in say Fort Knox. It would be more usual to speak of a 'ridiculous amount of money' being taken from taxes to enable a sporting event, or spending a 'ridiculous amount of money' on hair products, or sellers of 'Big Issue' making a 'ridiculous amount of money'. 'Ridiculous' or 'ridiculously' in 'ridiculously large' are comments on the decisions, or situations judged crazy, rather than merely the largeness of the wad of banknotes. So AHD's definition

ridiculous: adj. Deserving or inspiring ridicule; absurd, preposterous, or silly.

still applies, though at a distance.

Of the following synonyms given at your reference, only some have made the leap to being regularly used to comment on the situation while appearing to modify a noun specifying only part of that situation (eg absurd, ludicrous):

cockamamy (or cockamamie), comical, derisive, derisory, farcical, laughable, pathetic, preposterous, risible, silly //Related Words asinine, brainless, dumb, fatuous, foolish, half-baked, half-witted, harebrained, idiotic (also idiotical), imbecile (or imbecilic), inane, jerky, moronic, nonsensical, simpleminded, stupid, unwise, weak-minded, witless; balmy, cockeyed, crazy, cuckoo, daffy, daft, dotty, insane, kooky (also kookie), loony (also looney), lunatic, mad, nutty, screwball, senseless, wacky (also whacky); fantastic (also fantastical), far-fetched, inconceivable, incredible, unbelievable, unreal, unrealistic, unreasonable; illogical, irrational

  • I think the validity of your answer relies on whether or not a "ridiculous amount" is ever used also with the meaning of an "absurdly small amount". Can you cite an example where this has happened in literature, the news, etc.? In fact, if "ridiculous" here means "absurd" rather than "large", I would expect it to be used in both cases, i.e. when an amount is too small or when it is too large. Do you agree with this, and if not can you explain why? – randomatlabuser Jan 5 '14 at 9:10
  • 'Heartland FC have described the N300, 000 winners’ prize money for the Super Four as ridiculous.' Admittedly, the collocation 'ridiculous amount' is normally applied to amounts considered ridiculously large, but there is no guarantee that the 'ridiculous' descriptor is not a shortened form of 'ridiculously small'. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 5 '14 at 16:01
  • This response agrees with the 'ridiculous always means in some way absurd and undesirable rather than on occasion just absurdly large' view: from Wordreference: _Does the word 'price' collocate with the adjectives "laughable" and "ridiculous" to talk about a price that is too cheap? "$20 for a plane ticket to New Zealand? That's a laughable/ridiculous price!" _Both words generally have a negative connotation in this context. The only person who would describe a price as "too cheap" would be a member of the seller's management. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 5 '14 at 16:13

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