Wiktionary gives the meaning of "break bad" but does not mention about the origin:

1. (colloquial, of an event or of one's fortunes) To go wrong; to go downhill.

2. (colloquial, chiefly Southern US and Midwest US, of a person) To go bad; to turn toward immorality or crime.

Cassell's Dictionary of Slang (by Jonathon Green) has the below definition that gives a hint about the origin:

break bad v. 1 [1960s] (US Black) to become angry and aggressive 2 [1980s] (US campus) to perform well. [BREAK v.2 (3) + SE bad]

break v.2 (US) 3 [1930s] to conduct oneself.

It looks like the origin is African American Vernacular English but how did this phrase emerge exactly? And how did it gain a new meaning (with almost opposite connotations) in campus slang?


I have heard of 'breaking bad' in the context of Southern slang but it has a surprising and older Wall Street reference:

One of the earliest instances of the phrase appearing in the New York Times backs up the definition (to turn violent unnecessarily) and history (black, Southern, 1970s) suggested by those lexicographers. In a 1980 excerpt from John Langston Gwaltney’s Drylongso, a Self-Portrait of Black America, an oral history of African-American communities; in describing his view of race relations, a black man from rural Missouri told the author that “if a white man was to come over here and ask me anything, I wouldn’t break bad with him.”

But, while that idiom matches the one appearing in many dictionaries, there’s an even earlier appearance of the expression with a very different sense to it, suggesting the violence now implied by the phrase came later. In a 1919 overview of goings-on on Wall Street, the writer suggested that “the average speculator will not take a position in the highly speculative industrials for over Sunday, but because he can’t stay out of the market altogether, gets into the rails at the end of the week in hope of making a successful turn and with confidence that if things ‘break bad’ over Sunday rails will feel the shock less than the industrials.”

That older use of “break bad,” meaning “to go bad,” requires little knowledge of regional slang, and it makes enough sense that anyone might come up with or at least understand it. -http://entertainment.time.com/2013/09/23/breaking-bad-what-does-that-phrase-actually-mean/

  • I don't think that "break bad" in the Wall Street sense is really even a phrase. "Break" means "how things turn out" ("Those are the breaks, man.") so "breaking bad" is just one of the possibilities. – Malvolio Jun 6 '14 at 10:43
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    @Malvolio You do realize the article is based on research and not opinion – Third News Jun 6 '14 at 16:24
  • What's weird about that first quote is that is would make a lot more sense to say, "...I wouldn't break bread with him." So much so that it makes me wonder if the quote was erroneously transcribed from the speaker into text. I always assumed "break bad" came from an evolution of "break" as to turn, like in a fighter jet. Fighter pilots talk about "breaking right" or "breaking left" meaning to turn sharply to the right or left. So "breaking bad" would logically mean to turn suddenly towards the bad. But I have no evidence for that, I just always assumed that was the origin. – Todd Wilcox May 2 at 19:03

First time "Break Bad" was used in relations to drugs which is what "Breaking Bad" is all about, in in Chicago (Early 70's) by African Americans. They used it to describe how when they would relapse after a period of sobriety, and go back out and "Break Bad" again. As seen in 1994's Hoop Dreams by Arthur Agee's father about 1:10:00 into the movie.

  • Do you have any references to confirm this? – curiousdannii Aug 11 '15 at 13:12

Claude Brown uses it- with the negative connotation popularized by the hit show-in his classic "Manchild in the Promised Land, published in 1965. See page 313 of the paperback edition.

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