As someone who follows tech, I have heard over and over that a product is "X on steroids." Now, outside of a few ailments and allergies that are treated with steroids, it is pretty well accepted that steroids have a negative connotation. Why the dichotomy?

  • The connotation is not always positive: "Crime on steroids". – Wayfaring Stranger Dec 10 '16 at 20:33

Steroids have a negative connotation with respect to sportsmanship precisely because they make you stronger or faster. "X on steroids" comparisons are taking the sense of improvement into an arena where the sportsmanship aspect is irrelevant, so the negative connotation gets left behind.

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    I suppose so. I just hear it so often and just now I though to myself, "wait I don't want my tech being overly aggressive with poor complexion and health problems." Perhaps I over analyzed this. – Bob Roberts Dec 10 '10 at 15:23
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    @Bobnix -- ha, I would say you over-analyzed it. Though I would like never to hear the expression again. – jbelacqua Apr 8 '11 at 4:02

"X on steroids" has no negative connotations, unless X is a negative to begin with. ("Leona was like the devil on steroids.") The construction is an intensifier, and just means that something is so good it has an unfair advantage. It is bigger, better, faster, stronger ... whatever qualities one would expect in X's domain, but with an additional multiplier.

Compare it to the use of "uber": Ron is an uber-programmer at my company. It's just one more way of hyping a thing.

  • Many athletes have used "anabolic" steroids to grow bigger muscles or otherwise improve their performance in unusual or unexpected ways. In most sports, that's now considered cheating, but outside of sports, I agree there's no inherent negative connotation. Saying "A is like B on steroids" just implies A is surprisingly better than B. – Bob Murphy Dec 10 '10 at 23:33
  • Additionally, the "ana" (Greek "ανά") in "anabolic" connotes a "building up" or an "increase". Thus, "X on steroids" connotes a "building up" (or to be more colloquial, "souping up") whatever "X" is. – user730 Dec 12 '10 at 10:04
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    As for "über-", please don't forget the umlaut. :) – user730 Dec 12 '10 at 10:06
  • @J.M.: I was merely rendering what Americans would write. They also pronounce it "oober", which is their wont. I was criticized somewhat harshly on this board a while back for calling American pronunciations of foreign words "mispronunciations," so I decline to go into that one again. – Robusto Dec 12 '10 at 12:54
  • Fair point. :D That's a messy argument I wouldn't want to be in, either. (I had upvoted your answer before commenting, FWIW.) – user730 Dec 12 '10 at 12:56

First, steroids aren't "that" bad, in popular opinion.

Medically, steroids are used to treatment ailments like arthritis. Chemically, steroids are very common, e.g. choloesterol (though that isn't an anabolic steroid).

Possession or sale of anabolic steroids without a presecription in the U.S. is illegal, but a lot of people don't really care. Probably the most unpopular use of steroids is in sports.

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The topic is a light enough one to be the subject of jokes.

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Second, steroids are effective, or at least perceived so. If I'm thinking about purchasing product X, but someone tells me, "Y is X on steroids", their telling me how effective it is. Usually, legality/ethics doesn't really even relate to whatever the product is. I don't know of any illegal/unethical lawnmowers.

So it's an apt analogy and not outside the bounds of good taste.

  • the medical use of steroids to treat arthritis has nothing to do with the idiom in question. – dbliss Jun 5 '15 at 21:42
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    @dbliss, that steroids have a common legitimate medical use is relevant. The OP said "it is pretty well accepted that steroids have a negative connotation." That's sort of true, but only to a lesser extent. If it were completely true -- if steroids were drugs with no legitimate and legal uses -- steroids would likely not be the subject of an commonly accepted idiom, no matter how technically accurate the comparison would be. It's not the whole answer to why X on steroids can be positive, but it is one of two reasons I give. – Paul Draper Jun 6 '15 at 7:50
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    the medical use does help you refute that claim by the OP, but the "on steroids" idiom is specifically referring to the use of steroids to build muscle. so, i maintain, the treatment of arthritis has nothing to do with the idiom, but, i'll concede, the treatment of arthritis is relevant to what the OP says. – dbliss Jun 6 '15 at 8:11

Steroids in a certain context do improve performance or theoretically make someone bigger/more masculine, so the use of "X on steroids" is meant to convey the positive meaning you indicate. However, it seems to me to retain something of a negative connotation in that it's an over-exaggerated or artificial improvement. So if something is described as "X on steroids" it may be improved a bit too much or made a bit too large.


As other answers point out, it's the 'beefing up' aspect of steroids that's being alluded to. The negative connotations for competitive sport and long-term health are irrelevant to this usage, and it's perhaps a bit 'anal' to even think of them in what is after all just an idiomatic coinage.

Even if there are no meaningfully positive connotations, you can get this kind of coinage. Mostly we think the expression Fuck Off is entirely negative (well, mostly it is). But to those familiar with the usage, a fuck-off car is in fact highly desirable.

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