24 Words That Used to Mean Something Negative

Hulton Archives/Getty Images
Hulton Archives/Getty Images

Sometimes words move up in the world. Their meanings change with time, becoming more positive—a process linguists call amelioration. Here are some ameliorated words that were a pinch more negative back in the day.

1. Amaze: Make crazy; confuse with terror (1200s; 1770s)

2. Amuse: Cheat, delude, or deceive (1400s)

3. Awesome: Terrifying (1670s)

4. Boy: A servant, knave, or commoner (1250s)

5. Brave: Uncivilized or savage; showy (1400s)

6. Careful: Mournful, woeful; full of anxiousness (1100s)

7. Comical: Epileptic (~1100s)

8. Cool: Calmly Audacious (1825)

9. Courage: Temper (1300s)

10. Croon: To groan or lament (1400s)

11. Dizzy: Stupid (~1100s)

12. Eager: Fierce or angry; sour, harsh, or bitter (1200s)

13. Fond: Foolish, silly (1350s)

14. Fun: Cheat, trick, or hoax (1680s)

15. Glorious: Boastful (1400s)

16. Knight: A male servant; boy (~1000s)

17. Meticulous: Fearful, timid, and full of dread (1530s)

18. Mischievous: Disastrous (1300s)

19. Nice: Stupid or ignorant; careless or clumsy (1200s)

20. Pragmatic: Meddlesome; tastelessly busy (1600s)

21. Pretty: Deceitful, tricky, or sly (~1200s)

22. Sophisticated: Unnatural; contaminated (1600s)

23. Sustainable: Bearable (1610s)

24. Ravishing: Extremely hungry (1350s)

See Also...

11 Words That Don't Mean What They Sound Like
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38 Wonderful Foreign Words With No English Equivalent
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50 Collective Nouns to Bolster Your Vocabulary

Put Shakespeare's Best Insults On a Poster, Coffee Mug, or Even Some Bandages

Take your insult inspiration from the master: William Shakespeare.
Take your insult inspiration from the master: William Shakespeare.
Curious Charts Commission/Three Rivers Press/Amazon

If you’ve ever struggled to find the words to describe how angry or frustrated someone is making you, perhaps William Shakespeare, iconic writer and master of insults, can help.

Adorned with 100 insults from the Bard's many works, this poster from Curious Charts Commission (Amazon, $25) is the perfect reference piece to hang in your home or office for when you're struggling to think of the perfect takedown for anyone who crosses you. To help you get started, the 18-inch-by-24-inch poster is broken up into sections that include food and drink; types of individuals; inanimate objects; bodily qualities; creatures; and—of course—personal attributes and traits. Once you’ve decided the optimal route to take, you have a wide array of put-downs to choose from, ranging from “Were I like thee, I’d throw away myself,” to slightly simpler ones like, “You egg!”

The only drawback to the poster is that you can't take it everywhere with you. But the 14-ounce Shakespeare insults mug ($16), on the other hand, is the perfect choice for snark on the go. So next time a chatty co-worker tries to tell you about their weekend before you've even had your Monday morning coffee, you can simply look up and call them the "anointed sovereign of sighs and groans."

A mug decorated with Shakespeare insults.
Shakespeare insult mug from Unemployed Philosopher's Guild.
Unemployed Philosopher's Guild/Amazon

If, after all that, you’re still struggling to find the words, Shakespeare’s Insults: Educating Your Wit ($12), a book of 5000 slights pulled from 38 of Shakespeare’s plays, can be of assistance. Or, you can help heal a physical wound by dishing out an emotional one with these Shakespearean insult bandages ($6). You get 15 in a pack, and each box comes with a prize inside. 

Shakespeare Insult Bandages.
Shakespeare insult bandages found on Amazon.
Accoutrements/Amazon

Beyond a repertoire of insults, Shakespeare also coined many words we still use today. Check out the full list here.

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15 Totally Tubular '80s Slang Terms

luckyvector (speech bubble), Andrii Vinnikov (background)/iStock via Getty Images Plus
luckyvector (speech bubble), Andrii Vinnikov (background)/iStock via Getty Images Plus

The '80s were a time when everything was bigger and brighter: Hair was high; fashion was loud; even the slang was outrageous … or should we say, bodacious? Here are a few ‘80s slang terms—which were popular in the era, even if they weren’t created during the decade—that you should start working back into conversations. Throw on some leg warmers, grab your favorite scrunchie, and let’s motor!

1. Bodacious

According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, this word—a blend of bold and audacious meaning “excellent, wonderful, very enjoyable”—was coined in the 19th century but found new life in the 1970s thanks to CB radio, where it was used to reference a strong incoming signal. In 1989, it was featured heavily in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure; you can see a short clip of Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter discussing the word here.

2. Hella

According to Green’s, this adverb can mean either “a lot of” or “very, extremely, really,” and it’s an abbreviation of helluva, as in, “he had one helluva headache.”

3. Gnarly

It’s probably not a surprise that gnarly comes from gnarled. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word originated in the 1970s as a surfing term meaning “dangerous, challenging,” perhaps in reference to rough seas. Green’s notes that gnarly can be a term of disapproval, meaning “bizarre, frightening, amazing,” or, conversely, it can be used to describe something that is “wonderful, first-rate.” It was popularized by Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).

4. Duh

This word, also frequently used in the phrase “no duh,” is, according to Green’s, a “grunt of incomprehension ... often used as a rejoinder, implying that the first speaker is stupid.” The OED’s first citation is a 1943 Merrie Melodies cartoon: “Duh ... Well, he can't outsmart me, 'cause I'm a moron.” In 1964, The New York Times Magazine noted that the word “is the standard retort used when someone makes a conversational contribution bordering on the banal. For example, the first child says, ‘The Russians were first in space.’ Unimpressed, the second child replies (or rather grunts), ‘Duh.'"

5. Tubular

Tubular, from the Latin tubulus and the French tubulair, began its life in the 1680s as a word meaning “having the form of a tube or pipe; constituting or consisting of a tube; cylindrical, hollow, and open at one or both ends; tube-shaped.” But in the '80s, it took on a new meaning entirely—this one related to waves. According to the OED, surfers in the U.S. used it to refer to “a cresting wave: hollow and curved, so that it is well-formed for riding on,” and soon, it came to mean “the ultimate in perfection,” according to Green’s. The word (as well as many others on this list) was featured in Frank Zappa’s 1982 song “Valley Girl”: “It’s so AWESOME / It’s like TUBULAR, y’know.”

6. Eat My Shorts

That’s shorts as in underwear. This phrase dates back to the early 1970s (Green’s cites a 1975 issue of the Harvard Crimson: “They chant cheers as [...] unrefined as ‘A quart is two pints, a gallon is four quarts; Harvard men will eat Yale’s shorts’”) but you might remember it from John Hughes’s 1985 film The Breakfast Club. Later, it would be used liberally by Bart on The Simpsons.

7. Gag Me With A Spoon

This expression of disgust, dating back to 1982, apparently had other forms as well: Gag me with a blowdryer, a snow shovel, a phone book (remember those?!).

8. Radical

This adjective, meaning “extreme; outrageous; good,” originated in the late 1960s. Radical is another term borrowed from surfer slang, according to the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, after which it “migrated into the argot of the San Fernando Valley”—a.k.a. Valley Girls—“and then into mainstream U.S. youth slang.” In 1988, it even appeared in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Green’s pinpoints the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze” of the 1990s for bringing radical to the masses. Rad, a shortened version of the word, was also a popular way to describe something you really loved (as well as the title of a 1986 BMX movie starring Lori Loughlin and Talia Shire).

9. Take a Chill Pill

When you tell someone to take a chill pill, you’re telling them to relax. According to Green’s, the phrase originated on college campuses in the early '80s.

10. Wastoid

According to The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, someone who is a wastoid is “a worthless, dim-witted person; a person whose drug and alcohol abuse is ruining their life.” The term was coined by John Hughes, who used it in The Breakfast Club: Listen for when Andrew tells Bender, “Yo wastoid, you’re not going to blaze up in here.”

11. Ralph

Apparently, in the ‘80s, instead of just ralphing—i.e., vomiting, because supposedly that’s what the act of retching sounds like—college kids would call for Ralph, according to Green’s. The verb ralph dates back to the 1960s, and you can once again find it in The Breakfast Club: “Your middle name is Ralph, as in puke.”

12. Bod

Bod dates all the way back to the ‘80s—the 1780s, according to the OED. A clipped form of body, it also refers more generally to a person, and may be a shortened form of bodach, a Scottish word for a specter. On college campuses in the 1960s, it came to mean “a physically attractive person of the opposite sex.” And when a girl asks Ferris “How’s your bod?” in 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, what she’s actually asking is: How are you feeling?

13. Grody

Initially written in the mid-1960s as “groaty,” this term basically describes something that is slovenly, dirty, or super gross. If something is truly terrible, you might describe it as grody to the max. As the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1982, “Grody is used to describe a disgusting object. Moon Zappa calls her toenails ‘Grody to the max,' which means disgusting beyond belief.”

14. Motor

A verb meaning “to move quickly, to leave.” Curious about how to use it in a sentence? Look no further than this quote from the 1988 movie Heathers: “Great paté, but I gotta motor if I want to be ready for that party tonight.”

15. Veg

To veg or veg out, according to the OED, is to “To disengage mentally; to do nothing as a way of relaxing, to pass the time in (mindless) inactivity, esp. by watching television.” The OED dates the term, an abbreviation of the word vegetate, to a Toronto Globe and Mail article from 1979 that declared, “There's not the same flavor there used to be to traveling ... People just go to veg out, not to find out.” The past tense of the word can be found in The Totally True Diaries of an Eighties Roller Queen, which featured real diary entries from between 1983 and 1988: “Today I went to Tracey’s to pick up my guitar and stuff [...] I then went home and vegged out.”

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