It’s always good to hear praise for one’s work, appearance, character or just to hear positive remarks about a situation or thing. Some of these words, however, used to have, or still have, very negative meanings. In the post, I’ll give you five of these expressions and talk about their dark sides.
“He’s got a nice personality,” you might say, when asked by a friend what you think of her boyfriend. Or you might resort to saying, “it’s nice,” when asked what you think a colleague’s singing. It’s the blanket positive adjective of the English language, aside from good. What might surprise you is that it used to mean timid and foolish, stupid, senseless—at least in late 13th century English. A century later, people started using it to mean dainty and delicate. Yet another hundred years passed before it acquired the meaning of precise and careful. By the 1800s, it had started being used as a positive word, meaning agreeable or delightful.
The word “cute” is actually a shortened form of “acute”. In this sense, it was used to mean clever and shrewd, but was also used to mean bowlegged. Cute, huh?
Wicked means something bad. Really bad. As in so bad that Winston Churchill used the word to refer to Hitler [bold added for emphasis]:
“This wicked man, the repository and embodiment of many forms of soul-destroying hatred, this monstrous product of former wrongs and shame, has now resolved to try to break our famous island race by a process of indiscriminate slaughter and destruction.”
Nowadays, wicked is being used as an expression of enthusiasm, as in, “That was wicked, Harry!” This seems to be a Britishism, but has started seeped into colloquial use in other English variants. It reminds me of the Mandarin word 厉害 (pinyin: lìhai), which can be used to mean devastating, as in a devastating flood, and also used to describe competence or capability. In the way you might remark to someone who got a perfect grade in an exam.
The other day, to help me work, I was listening to Tiesto’s music on SoundCloud, where I came upon a comment saying, “This is sick! Awesome drop!” The meaning, while confusing for those who haven’t seen this usage, is overwhelmingly a positive one. That doesn’t mean that when you call in sick for work, they’ll be happy for you. The usage may be just a passing fad, but who knows? In a hundred years, the word sick may lose its original meaning, with ill being used in its place. Language is crazy that way.
When you exclaim “incredible!” after watching a movie, reading a book, or hearing a song, it doesn’t usually mean you don’t believe it. It just means you enjoyed the experience. But in the 1400s, it was used to mean incredulous or dubious, as in you really doubt the truthfulness of something.
Next time someone says something nice about you, well, think again. They may be doing so in a passive-aggressive way. Or maybe not. Perhaps you’re simply cute, wicked, sick, or incredible.