4

The term "bad boy" literally means a boy who is bad. Those of us who were boys and grew up speaking English are likely to have heard it applied to us, either as a description or a warning.

Somewhere along the way this term acquired another meaning rather far afield from its original one:

bad boy
3. Something that is considered especially impressive, potent, or powerful. My new motorcycle has some real power in the engine; I can't wait to take this bad boy out on the road.

From TFD Online

I had always thought this to be an American term, but just this evening I heard it used on a British TV crime drama. That got me to wondering who started using it first. It could be that the term originated in the UK, or that the term wafted its way across the pond from the US.

Can anybody nail down when and where this specialized meaning of "bad boy" gained currency?

2

OED, in the entry for bad boy, n.,

2. colloq. (chiefly U.S.) (orig. in African-American usage). Something considered extremely effective or impressive.

attests use of the sense as early as 1969:

1969 Afro Amer. 10 May 31/5 The [Howard University] administration has been selling (wolf) tickets with their TRO's (Temporary Restraining Orders) all year; and the students just cashed in one of those bad boys!

Prior use of the phrase in the given sense can be assumed; it follows on the more general use of 'bad' in the sense of 'good', attested in the OED entry for bad, adj., n.2, and adv. from 1897:

IV. slang (orig. U.S.). Formidable, good. (Sometimes with repeated vowel, for emphasis.)

12. As a general term of approbation: good, excellent, impressive; esp. stylish or attractive.

  1897 G. Ade Pink Marsh 195 She sutny fix up a pohk chop 'at's bad to eat.

The 'impressive' sense of 'bad boy', however, describing things, owes a greater debt to its immediate progenitor, the archetypal 'bad boy', attested from 1860 in OED:

1. colloq. (orig. U.S.). A man who does not conform to expected or approved standards of conduct; a rebel. With of or genitive indicating the sphere in which he is so regarded.

1860 N.Y. Times 9 Mar. 4/3 We of New York who do duty so constantly in the British Press as the model ‘bad boys’ of Christendom.

These 'bad boys', often ambivalently regarded, have been immortalized in literature: Thomas Bailey Aldritch's 1869 The Story of a Bad Boy; George W. Peck's 1883 Peck's Bad Boy and His Pa, along with its sequels; Mark Twain's 1884 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

2

The idiomatic expression definitely originated in AmE according to the following sources, probably from the early '70s. The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English cites a usage from 1974:

Bad boy:

  • something that is impressive US - I finally got this bad boy together bout six, seven months. Got the whole place furnished top to bottom. — Vernon E. Smith. The Jomes Man, p.139 - 1974.

while the Green's Dictionary of Slang cites a usage from the early '80s:

Bad boy:

(US) anything considered impressive.

  • 1983 [US] R. Price Breaks 156: Tell them to get it the hell out of room 220 so I can move in the way I was supposed to, and this bad boy’s yours.

a usage with a related meaning, from which the above usage might derive, is from black American and dates from the '50s:

bad boy:

(US black) a general term of approval, referring both to individuals and to objects.

  • 1953 [US] L. Durst Jives of Dr. Hepcat (1989) 9: When I pin you daddio the wagon in here, and you lodes my heart on. You don’t pack no six gun, but you are a bad bad boy, and for you my lid always flip.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.