What’s your favorite word of compliment or admiration? How do you express approval?
These are important questions for each generation of young people, who want a vocabulary all their own. Of course, what’s hip, rad or rippin’ today might not be so groovy tomorrow.
Slang words wax and wane in popularity, but here are 13 ways to convey something’s A-OK:
1. Ace. Meant to convey “top quality,” as in the highest playing card in a standard deck of cards. A “flying ace” in World War I meant a pilot who had shot down five or more planes in combat. A student who gets an A on a test can say, “I aced it!” but once upon a time, it was used as a positive exclamation: “Ace!” meant “Great!”
2. Awesome. GenX youth popularized the use of this word, though it has since been nearly “pummeled into obsolescence.” Awesome originally meant “producing terror,” then “full of awe” or “awe-inspiring.” More recently, it has been used for anything that’s moderately interesting (such as rocks, socks and clocks in the “Lego Movie” song “Everything Is Awesome.”)
3. Bad. An example of contrarianism in youth slang (bad means good), but still with the original connotation of “rough” or “evil.” Then again, sometimes “bad” is bad.
4. Bully. One of the favorite adjectives of U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, meaning “grand” or “excellent.” Used in this sense in Great Britain by 1680 and revived in popularity America around 1844 (“Bully for you!”). Its meaning evolved from the Middle Dutch boele, meaning “lover” or “boyfriend,” to the current meaning of someone who is cruel to those weaker than himself.
5. Cool. This word has also kept its Old English meaning of “low temperature.” In the 1940s, tenor saxophonist Lester Young popularized the word as an expression of calm approval and satisfaction.
6. Crack. Used in the phrase “crack shot,” an accurate marksman, but it can also mean good or skilled in general. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary definition related to “quickness or smartness.”
7. Epic. Originally used for important events or classic stories such as the “Iliad,” “Beowulf” or “Paradise Lost,” this term is now used liberally to describe anything great, grand or impressive.
8. Groovy. Popular in the 1960s among surfers and hippies. However, “groovy” originated in the Jazz Era of the 1920s, from the phrase “in the groove”—referring to the groove on vinyl records.
9. Hep (and hip). According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “hep” was first used in 1862 to mark the cadence of a march, like this: “HEP 2, 3, 4 … HEP 2, 3, 4.” By 1900, it had already begun to mean “trendy”—decades before “hip” was adopted by beatniks and hippies. Today, we have hipsters, and it’s still hip to be square.
10. Mod. Beginning about 1958, the “mod” youth culture was typified by sharp-dressing, scooter-riding, working-class Londoners. By the early 1960s, “mod” was short for “trendy.”
11. Sick. Another example of contrarianism in youth slang. Being ill is disagreeable, of course, but something that is “sick” is attractive, cool or stupendous.
12. Swell. By 1786, a “swell” was a dandy, a fashionable person with a swollen sense of self-importance. Eventually, it became an exclamation of admiration. In “The Music Man,” set in 1912, Professor Harold Hill warns parents against sinister influences on their sons: “Are certain words creeping into his conversation? Words like … swell!” By 1930, expressions such as “That’s just swell!” had become common in the United States.
13. Wild. From the Old English wilde, this word is now synonymous with fun, thrilling or exhilarating.
A version of this post first ran on Daily Writing Tips.