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How and why have some words changed to a complete opposite?

How did 'sick' come to mean 'awesome' or 'really good / cool' in modern U.S. slang? I'm interested in origins and possibly regional patterns, if applicable.

This usage reminds me of the use of 'bad' to mean 'totally awesome' in the 80s. It would be interesting to know how that came about as well, and if the pattern is related...

  • I think the pattern is related, though I'm unable to substantiate that. Still, I've observed it enough: some adjective is used informally to mean something different than it typically means (maybe even the opposite of what it usually means) – a cool motorcycle, a nasty curveball, a rad(ical) dress, a wicked dance move, a gnarly book, an epic sunset, a sick jump, a bad pizza, etc. Somehow, the word sticks for awhile, probably because it sounds innovative. Yet as the popularity of the word swells, its freshness wanes, and it becomes ripe to be displaced by something new.
    – J.R.
    Jul 18, 2012 at 21:34
  • 3
    This is not an exact duplicate of that prior question. This is much more specific. Jul 19, 2012 at 22:54
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    Voted to re-open as this asks specifically about some words which are not specifically asked about or answered in the other one.
    – Hugo
    Jul 19, 2012 at 23:27
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    This question ought to be reopened, because the current answers are basically wrong. Whether or not other usage in youth culture pre-dates it, sick became slang for pretty much the opposite of what it traditionally means in the late '90s in South London, with predominantly black kids into the 'grime' music scene, which in turn spawned the 'dubstep' music scene. Dubstep has since become popular in the USA, and the American kids that use this word tend to be into dubstep, which originally comes from South London. When I was a kid in the '80s, 'wicked' developed in very much the same way.
    – paradroid
    Jan 29, 2013 at 17:09
  • My favourite is how "dank", which means something like "damp, smelly and disgusting" came to have a positive meaning, because that's exactly what happened to "funky" decades earlier, which has a very similar meaning. (Probably, in both cases, because of cannabis).
    – MGOwen
    Apr 11, 2019 at 0:55

4 Answers 4


The OED says this slang is now especially used for skateboarding and surfing, and the first quotation is from a 1983 UNC-CH Campus Slang by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill:

Sick, unbelievably good: The Fleetwood Mac concert was sick.

The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2007) says:

bad adj 1 good; tough. US, 1897.

sick adj ... 6 excellent; wonderful. On the principle that BAD means 'good' US.

Partridge notes bad is much older, and the OED gives the source as George Ade's story of a black shoeshine boy, Pink Marsh : a story of the streets and town (1897):

She sutny fix up a pohk chop 'at's bad to eat.

It says its originally US slang and means something good or excellent, especially stylish or attractive. The later quotations trace its use through black and jazz slang (1928, 1955, 1959, 1971 and 1989) until more 'mainstream' use is noted in a US newspaper in 1995 and a UK book in 2006.

The OED has another similar meaning of bad which is originally African-American and used of a person who is so dangerous they inspire admiration, or impressively tough, or especially formidably skilled. The earliest quotation is from 1843 but only meaning dangerous or hostile without admiration. Their next earliest is in 1938 in a musical context, as are some of the others, and I can see some overlap of these meanings.

A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2002) gives a possibly unrelated term using sick, but it's somewhat similar:

In knock (one) sick, to astound, 'flabbergast': coll.: - 1923 (Manchon).

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    Growing up as a skater we often used the term sick as a synonym for "crazy" as well .... as in "You're sick in the head because you did that trick", but it was used to indicate approval.
    – Marcus_33
    Jul 19, 2012 at 14:12

I think it was originally a skateboarding slang to express "shock and awe" after seeing something cool. I'm hazarding a guess that it was first used to describe crashes. The only corroboration I can find is from About.com and a Straight Dope forum post. Quoting the latter:

I first heard the word "sick" being used as slang on the 1987 skateboarding video put out by Powell and Peralta entitled "The Search for Animal Chin." A skater did some cool trick or whatever, and a hardcore skateboarder onlooker said, "that's sick". We thought it was hilarious, and I have heard it used ever since, though mainly among skaters/surfers/snowboarders/druggies and the like.

It is my observation that the word not so much means "cool", but carries a connotation more extreme than just that. It is used to describe something that is unbelievable, unprecedented, or just plain mind-blowing.


It seems to be a form of "reverse psychology," in which words like "disruptive" took on positive connotations, around, or just before the turn of the century.

Could "bastard" have a positive connotation?

Meaning that other words that normally have negative connotations, actually became "backhanded compliments" when used somewhat sarcastically.


The association came from the ever present desire for greater kicks with entertainment, always pushing the limit. fun = fun –> wild = fun –> wilder = more fun –> etc.

I believe the expression came with the rock bands and their desire to push "wild", eg. when Alice Cooper killed a chicken (the chicken didn't actually die) on stage, outsiders and parents thought it was sickening, but the audience found it cool, and so fans of the rock scene adopted/coined the term "sick" meaning "wild", "cool", "awesome" – later to be included in more mainstream language.

note: I'm not saying "sick" necessarily came out of that one event, but rather out of the rock scene wanting to discover new ground, Alice Cooper, KISS, Rocky Horror Show, etc.

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