Upside-Down Words

My grandson Avraham Yitzchak came bounding into the house. He’s usually bounding when he’s not leaping. He was all hopped up about a party in his third-grade class. They had enough junk food to make anyone over 9 sick to his stomach. But the food was only the appetizer. The main course was yet to come.

“And the prizes were really sick!” he said.

My son Meilech, not one to pass up a setup, said, “If they were sick, maybe we should call the doctor.”

Avraham Yitzchak played it straight:

“No. … You know how sometimes words have two meanings?”

“You mean like cool means not hot and also means great?”

“Yes. Sick is cool.”

Considering the arctic cooling that just blasted us, I’d say it’s more the other way around.

But the evolution of the word cool is interesting. In the 1930s, cool acquired a new meaning: excellent. The shift came via mellow jazz musicians who were cool as cucumbers. Or perhaps pickled.

The inverted usage of sick is more recent. A 2004 draft addition to the Oxford English Dictionary noted a slang sense of “Excellent, impressive; risky.” The earliest citation was 1983, from a campus slang newsletter at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: “Sick, unbelievably good: The … concert was sick.”

So much for feel-good music.

How do words wind up meaning the opposite of their original meaning? The simplest answer is a form of irony or even sarcasm — like calling a tall guy “Shorty.”

This is a far cry from the Talmudic adoption of euphemistic speech to avoid saying anything negative: lishna me’alya. The classic example is lashon sagi nahor — referring to a blind person as “full of light.”

However, I suspected that reversing the meaning of sick is more than sounding cute. I had a hunch (i.e., a layman’s theory) that sick is part of a usage rebellion. My hunch took me to the slang expression bad.

The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) wrote: “Many people might have the impression that the slang usage of bad to mean its opposite, ‘excellent,’ is a recent innovation of African American Vernacular English.”

AHD cited the “‘good’ use of bad” going back to 1897. And a usage from the 1850s “in the sense ‘formidable, very tough.’ … Both illustrate a favorite creative device of informal and slang language — using a word to mean the opposite of what it ‘really’ means.”

I still wasn’t convinced. Echoes of the ’60s playing in my head told me the good bad is a predominantly black expression. And no, it’s not poor English. It’s part of a resistance movement. To me that big little word “bad” stood for a revolution. Not just civil rights, but upending uncivil wrongs.

So the case wasn’t closed. Then I found my answer. Maciej Widawski wrote in African American Slang: A Linguistic Description:

“Sometimes, the melioration or pejoration in slang can be extreme and involve total reversal of meaning. Antiphrasis, as it is technically called, is the use of an expression to mean the opposite of its usual sense, for instance saying that’s wonderful when one really thinks something is terrible. [Professor of journalism Walter M.] Brasch calls this ‘semantic inversion’ and considers it an important feature of African American lexis. … [Lexicographer Tom] Dalzell views such inversion as a sign of rebellion, explains that it ‘is a linguistic world-upside-down view, in that what dominant society views as positive is negative, and vice versa. …”

Under one sense (definition), Oxford English Dictionary also found a positive usage of bad going back to 1897. But the next sense said:

“Originally in African-American usage. Of a person: (originally) dangerous or menacing to a degree which inspires awe or admiration; impressively tough, uncompromising, or combative; (in later use also) possessing other desirable attributes to an impressive degree; esp. formidably skilled.”

But there’s one thing the freedom-loving revolutionaries of the ’60s overlooked. There was a power bigger than the FBI; bigger than the National Guard, bigger than all the nation’s police forces put together.

They overlooked the power of money. Even as the protests and marches called for a new day, media moguls and marketing wizards were already subverting the revolution. They struck with a counterrevolution of their own by the most insidious means: they co-opted the revolution by redirecting it … and turning it into a product.

The entertainment industry embraced blaxploitation to the tune of billions. And in 1966, Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBDO) launched a campaign for the Dodge Rebellion.

Shlomo Hamelech warned us centuries earlier: “v’hakesef yaaneh es hakol — money answers everything.”

When things look topsy-turvy, I take heart in an old custom I heard about. In Kotzk, people would cover a liquor bottle with a glass. So, if the world turns upside down, at least there will be a glass of liquor left.

Please send smiles, sticks and stones to

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