How Did The Word “Sick” Get A Positive Meaning?

Another Mystery Revealed! These Days “Sick” Means Good, But How Did THAT Ever Happen?

How did the word "sick" get a positive meaning?
via Rochelle Hartman/Flickr

1Sure, slang words come and go, but some just don’t seem to make any sense

Not that anybody really cares when a perfectly sensible word gets twisted to mean it’s exact opposite. But honestly, what has a nice, helpful little word like “sick” ever done to you, and how in the world did it happen…?

2For those living under a rock, here’s what “sick” has come to mean

For most of the free world, sick is what happens when you eat a bad burrito and spend the next six hours getting super friendly with a piece of porcelain.

When kids (as we like to call them) use the word, they mean good, awesome, excellent or very impressive- and to be really awesome about it myself, I will remind my teenager of that the next time they are too “sick” to do something.

3When did kids first start using it? Can you give me some examples?
With phrases like, Dat rell sick (meaning “that’s awesome”) or He di sickest (meaning “he is the best,”) some would say that the makeover originated in Trinidad & Tobago, but I’ve never been there, so I cannot confirm it.

When “sick” arrived in the Midwest in the 70’s , it wasn’t quite cool yet. At that time it was meant to describe something odd or unusual.

Then in the 80’s surfers- a little out there, but always trend-setting – started using it. They began referring to their experiences with phrases like… “I caught some sick air!” and “Those were some sick waves!”

Initially they were referring to the act of taking in too much air or water to the point it would make you sick. But the talent required for these tricks was so amazing that the term took on a positive connotation.

4I wasn’t so old in the 80’s. How come I never heard of it then?

You did. You apparently just don’t remember. Or your mom was like mine and didn’t let you watch Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) either.

5What does this sort of expression stem from?

The use of inverted definitions has been recorded since as far back as 1897—so, it’s easily a classic. It’s simply a way of controlling environment and talking in a way that provides a connection between you and your peer group. However, I would not recommend you attempt it on your own. Walking around telling people they look sick… will not make you “cool.”

6Is there an expression we used in the 70’s that was a lot like this?

Bangin’ and Bitchin’ are both very happy words meant to refer to something in a positive way, and don’t necessarily have anything to do with loud noises or complaining. Imagine if it was sick to the max, you know. That’s the skinny on things that are good sounding like that they were bad… and apparently, if they were actually bad, we just didn’t talk about them. What did you say… what slang words took over your vocab?

7Are you going to quiz me on all the slang words I remember from the seventies? You wouldn’t really waste my time like that, would you?

Yes, we would. And we did. Sorry Charlie, it’s here. And yeah, it’s totally sick.