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At 1:35 into this clip of the animation movie 'Despicable Me 3', Dru shows his twin brother, Gru, their dad's supercar:

Dru: Dad's villain wheels. Pretty slick, huh?

According to this previous question about the difference between slick and sleek, John Lawler says in a comment:

Slick is a pejorative term, but sleek need not be.

And the only answer having 9 votes says:

To me, slick is more about touch: slippery, and sleek is more about sight/appearance. A wet moss-covered surface is slick. A satin skirt is sleek.

To which John Lawler agrees.

As far as I know, Dru wasn't portraying his dad's car in a negative way at all. Also, it's all about "sight/appearance" and not really about "touch".

Then, why is slick used instead of sleek here?

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  • 14
    "Slick" is not (necessarily) pejorative. Context is everything.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 18, 2017 at 4:03
  • 6
    In most contexts "That's a pretty slick car" would be a compliment. But "You have your pants on backwards, Slick" uses the term in a pejorative fashion. And there's a significant difference between the meaning of "slick" (in the non-pejorative sense) and "sleek".
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 18, 2017 at 4:08
  • 1
    A fancy sports car is streamlined.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 18, 2017 at 5:38
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    While we are on the topic of cars, I should point out that Slick is also a type of tyre. And as the word suggests, Slick tyres are smooth and have no treads. Sleek tyres on the other hand don't have to be smooth, just good-looking :)
    – Jalapeno
    Dec 18, 2017 at 15:51
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    In this case slick is not being used literally, but as a positive adjective loosely connected to its original meaning. Like cool, radical, wicked, fresh, neat, clean, tight, bangin, bananas, stylin, etc. Dec 18, 2017 at 16:42

4 Answers 4

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Slick, when it is used metaphorically instead of literally, simply means "cool" or "neat" or "clever", as shown by these definitions:

3 a : characterized by subtlety or nimble wit : clever; especially : wily • a slick swindler
b : deft, skillful • a slick ballplayer
4 : extremely good : first-rate
from m-w.com

As you can see, there's nothing pejorative about it when used in this sense.

"Slick" can refer to the car's coolness factor; it covers how good it looks, how well it works, and how much nifty stuff it can do.

"Sleek" can only refer to the car's appearance.

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  • And now I will start using sleek to mean cool or awesome. Just because it sounds totally sleek. Dec 18, 2017 at 16:44
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Per the OED, slick and sleek as adjectives both share a quite similar meaning, having both derived from Middle English slike, meaning essentially "smooth."

The pejorative nature of "slick" is much more recent and manifests in a slang noun form first attested as recently as 1959.

U.S. slang. A clever or smart person; a cheat or swindler. [emphasis mine]

This sense is cross-referenced to slicker and slickster, which means essentially "swindler." It is likely a figurative outgrowth of the earlier U.S. sense meaning "slippery."

The sense you refer to in the movie is more likely OED adjective definition 5.

First-class, excellent; neat, in good order; smart, efficient, that operates smoothly; superficially attractive, glibly clever. (Of things, actions, etc.)

This sense is first attested in 1833 making it also quite recent relative to more literal sense of the word slick, as in "smooth." Unlike the slang sense referenced first, there is nothing necessarily pejorative about this sense, though it is worth noting the second portion of the definition, "superficially attractive." This is where context comes in. In the context of a person referring to their own car as slick, it is unlikely that they meant "superficially attractive;" rather they likely meant "first-class, excellent."

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  • Slick is originally a tactile term, meaning slippery, like ice.
  • Sleek, on the other hand, is more visual, meaning smooth-looking, like oiled skin.

The initial sl- in both cases is not accidental.

The SL- assonance in English has the basic sense of two-dimensional contact at a liquid-solid interface. Since events like this are rarely pleasant for humans (think of slipping in the slush and slopping home), there is also a sizable number of pejorative terms with SL-. In fact, there is a
large phonosemantic overlap among the 74 English simplex words with the SL- assonance.

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  • Do you mean it doesn't even matter which you use in the context of this movie?
    – JK2
    Dec 18, 2017 at 4:52
  • If we're talking about expression of extreme teen-age approval, either one could surface. There's no predicting slang. Dec 18, 2017 at 15:04
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Slick might also be used in a fancy term. To call something slick could mean that the person thinks its extra cool or rad. if you use sleek it would sound to the person that it means clean or collected.

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  • Would you use 'slick' or 'sleek' in the 'car context?
    – JK2
    Dec 18, 2017 at 4:35
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    @JK2 - a T-bucket hot rod would hardly be considered "sleek", but many admirers would call it "slick".
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 18, 2017 at 22:21

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