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I've been trying to understand the meaning of "ridiculous", but I am still confused. I can see it is used in both positive or negative ways.

When someone likes something, they say with a smile and a happy look - "That's ridiculous".

When someone dislikes something, they say furiously, as if complaining. Or laughing at something - "That's ridiculous".

How can I make the distinction between the two uses?

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    So what does it mean in the real English language? There is no "real English language". In English, words are influenced by their context - as in yours. If you wish to be able to speak English, you must understand this. -- However, in your examples, "ridiculous" has the same meaning: "[capable of] arousing laughter" Obviously, that laughter can be joyful or dismissive. OED: Etymology: Either < post-classical Latin ridiculosus laughable, comic (4th cent.), or directly < classical Latin rīdiculus capable of arousing laughter, funny, comic, amusing, absurd, silly + -ous suffix. – Greybeard Jan 11 at 11:51
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Dictionary.com https://www.dictionary.com/browse/ridiculous defines ridiculous as

causing or worthy of ridicule or derision; absurd; preposterous; laughable

The original meaning is "causing or worthy of ridicule", but the word is now often used to mean "absurd" without a strong negative connotation. This allows for the slang meaning, again from Dictionary.com, of

absurdly or unbelievably good, bad, crazy, etc.

It is possible for both meanings to be carried together, as in

It is ridiculous how well he did in that test.

which may mean he is very able or that the test was very easy, or both.

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    Your answer would be even better if you provided the link from Dictionary.com – fev Jan 11 at 12:37
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I am a non-native English speaker, and you are not alone in getting confused.

However, we have two clues to help us get less confused:

  1. Look at the content

You should look at the expression in the content it is said. If it is used in negative/ positive content, it also probably means something negative/ positive.

E.g., That is ridiculous! He has no authority to threaten his students. (negative)

E.g., That is ridiculous! I can't believe she has passed all of her exams without even an hour of study. (positive-showing surprise)

  1. Listen to the tone

This is even more important than the first clue. Pay careful attention to how the speaker says the expression. Does it show sadness? Does it show surprise? Does it show praising?

Finally, don't be afraid if you couldn't understand the speaker's message. You can always politely ask, "Excuse me, I didn't get your point! What is ridiculous?"

Give yourself some time, and you will become more experienced over time.

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    Both connotations are defined in dictionaries: dictionary.com/browse/ridiculous – user 66974 Jan 11 at 7:44
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    I have upvoted for explaining the issue from the point of view of a non-native speaker. What is obvious for a native speaker can take time to be assimilated by a non-native, even if he/she has many good dictionary definitions. – fev Jan 11 at 12:39

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