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Many words (such as imbecile and idiot) used to be technical terms or proper names, however, eventually came to be used mainly for insults, and are today considered negative.

Has the word "freak" always carried a negative connotation, or was it once a technical term for meaning "different" or "abnormal"?

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It hasn't always carried a negative connotation, and even today, it doesn't always carry a negative connotation. Here are some examples:

You'll find an archaic definition where freak is a whimsical quality or disposition. (ref #2)

Another archaic definition is to streak or fleck randomly. (ref)

A current definition, used in expressions like health freak means to be obsessed with something. So a health freak is obsessed with health (ref). An exercise freak (ref) is someone who is obsessed with exercise. Being obsessed is not necessarily a negative attribute.

I'll add this. Freak can also mean out of the ordinary (ref #2a and 2b). So a freak storm is a storm that is unexpected or out of the ordinary.

  • 1
    'freak' is also increasingly used in Sports to describe a player with extreme athletic talent. – Oldcat Mar 13 '14 at 22:14
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Negative connotation to the extent that it implies 'abnormal'. Different is not negative, Abnormal is.

I hope this short answer will be helpful.

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It usually has the bland meaning of "very different" and can really be used in a variety of situations as negative or positive.

Negative: Holy cow that guy has 20 piercings. What a freak!

Positive: That guy weighs over 250 pounds and is the fastest person on the team. What a freak!

  • The word is also used inanimately. We speak of 'freak weather conditions' etc. – WS2 Mar 13 '14 at 6:59

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