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Bad:

The surprising likely origin of the word "bad" -- "effeminate man." From the Oxford English dictionary (OE = Old English, ME = Middle English):

Prof. Zupitza, with great probability, sees in bad-de (2 syll.) the ME. repr. of OE. bæddel ‘homo utriusque generis, hermaphrodita’ ... and the derivative bædling ‘effeminate fellow, womanish man ...’ applied contemptuously; assuming a later adjectival use, as in yrming, wrecca, and loss of final l as in mycel, muche, lytel, lyte, wencel, wench(e. This perfectly suits the ME. form and sense, and accounts satisfactorily for the want of early written examples. And it is free from the many historical and phonetic difficulties of the derivation proposed by Sarrazin [which ends up relating it to an OE. word meaning ‘forced, oppressed’] .... No other suggestion yet offered is of any importance; the Celtic words sometimes compared are out of the question.

The Random House and Webster's Revised Unabridged echo this; the Online Etymology Dictionary suggests that bæddel and bædling also meant "pederast."

Thanks to Language Log for the pointer. Naturally, I do not mean to imply that I agree with the thinking reflected in the etymology, much like I don't think that Slavs are naturally slaves. I just thought it interesting that such a simple, foundational-seeming term as "bad" appears to stem from attitudes about sex roles.

Ex-Fed (mail) (www):
This certainly places the Michael Jackson song in context.
6.10.2008 7:26pm
Grobstein (mail) (www):
Yes, it today has an opposite meaning.
6.10.2008 7:34pm
smitty1e:
Grobstein: I can't decide if this post is 'hot' or 'cool'.
6.10.2008 7:38pm
bornyesterday (mail) (www):

Grobstein: I can't decide if this post is 'hot' or 'cool'.


Stick with 'radical'...wait...that's no good either.

How about 'bodacious'?
6.10.2008 7:44pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
bornyesterday: I think you mean bootylicious.
6.10.2008 8:38pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Gives new meaning to all sorts of song lyrics...

"I did a bad, bad thing"
"Bad to the bone"
6.10.2008 8:50pm
Warmongering Lunatic:
Obviously, the non-sexist term would be "ungood".
6.10.2008 8:58pm
Curt Fischer:
Sheesh, guys, what are you doing? Ex-Fed already won the thread, in the first comment no less.
6.10.2008 9:02pm
Glenn W. Bowen (mail):
http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=bad


How about 'bodacious'?


'bodacious' can only refer to two things.
6.10.2008 10:36pm
JK:
Ha, I like "bad to the bone"; certainly flips that one around...
6.10.2008 11:24pm
Hoosier:
Ex-Fed—I applaud you.

OK. Slavs may not be natural slaves. But since you mentioned them AND gays, the origins of the term "buggery" might deserve a thread.

Then again, it might not.
6.11.2008 12:13am
Eugene Volokh (www):
Ex-Fed: You do win.

Hoosier: Beat you to it, twice -- here and here.
6.11.2008 12:34am
Splunge:
such a simple, foundational-seeming term as "bad" appears to stem from attitudes about sex roles.

That's seems unlikely. There are, first, a great number of synonyms for "bad," that is, the foundational concept has many words describing it, not just this one. What you are observing is only the fact that the connotations of this particular word have shifted over the centuries, perhaps from having a connotation of sexual misbehaviour or misconduct to generalized misconduct, or the result of it. A similar shift in connotation has occurred in the last 80 years with the word "gay."

You do not know if "bad" was 1200 years ago the basic word it is now. There were very likely other synonyms that feel into disuse and vanished. One or more of them may actually have been more common than "bad" at the time, and may have a completely different origin.

Patterns of usage and how they change are at least as important in understanding the socio-psychological origin of words as the etymology. For example, if the word "gay" entirely replaces "homosexual," because it's easier to say, or for some other complex set of reasons, it would be a mistake for future anthropologists -- who only know the surviving word "gay" -- to conclude the most common word for homosexuality had its origins in attitudes towards happiness and pleasure.

Your etymological fact is interesting, but I think your subsequent linguistic theory makes too much stew from one oyster.
6.11.2008 2:39am
Bama 1L:
We think we know what words were in use. "Bad" was not much used in print before the 18th century. Words like "evil" and "wicked" were more common to express the idea for which we today commonly use "bad."

In the KJV, "bad" only ever appears in the phrase "good or bad" or variations thereof: "bad or good," "good nor bad," "a good for a bad." I would guess that, because of the euphony, "good" and "bad" were commonly paired in speech, with "bad" losing its earlier meaning and becoming simply the opposite of "good." Maybe etymologists have explained this.
6.11.2008 7:34am
Arkady:
Hmmm, how then should we construe the term 'badass' -- nebbermine.
6.11.2008 7:34am
darelf:
Splunge - I think you will find among the under 25 crowd that "gay" doesn't have much to do with homosexuality anymore. As in, "That book was gay." "Your shirt is completely gay." Or in the pronouncement after hearing or witnessing some event, "Gay"
6.11.2008 9:00am
corneille1640 (mail):

Naturally, I do not mean to imply that I agree with the thinking reflected in the etymology, much like I don't think that Slavs are naturally slaves

In other words, you don't necessarily agree that the word "is free from the many historical and phonetic difficulties of the derivation proposed by Sarrazin"?
6.11.2008 9:35am
Anderson (mail):
I don't have the Genealogy of Morals in front of me, but it would be interesting to compare this English etymology with Nietzsche's findings on "bad" in German.

N. attributes "bad" to a warrior/ruler caste's contempt for the vanquished/governed. It would be psychologically very predictable for this contempt to express itself by depicting the lower orders as effeminate. We see the same thought-process at work at any number of sporting events.
6.11.2008 10:03am
Hoosier:
Prof. V: Beaten to the punch again? Swell. Just like when I came up with that boy-wizard-book-series idea.
6.11.2008 10:24am
jim47:
darelf - I think you'll find that usage to vary according to things like class and subculture. I note that among those who use the word gay the way you describe, there tend to be a high number of people who do actively think homosexuality is contemptible, so I am not sure the usage is as divorced from its original meaning as you say.
6.11.2008 11:30am
jazzed (mail):
<i><b>born yesterday:</b> <blockquotes> Grobstein: I can't decide if this post is 'hot' or 'cool'.</blockquotes>

Stick with 'radical'...wait...that's no good either.

How about 'bodacious'?</i>

Perhaps <a rel="nofollow" href="http://onlineslangdictionary.com/browse/s/page5" target="_blank">"Sick"</a> (new window)?
6.11.2008 12:32pm
jazzed (mail):
born yesterday:

Grobstein: I can't decide if this post is 'hot' or 'cool'.



Stick with 'radical'...wait...that's no good either.

How about 'bodacious'?


Perhaps "Sick" (new window)?
6.11.2008 12:40pm
jazzed (mail):
What a mess. I'm sorry, folks.
6.11.2008 12:40pm
Per Son:
Very interesting post. Makes sense, because in Jamaica, a slang term for gay men is baddy boy. There was a frenzy when Buju Banton, a dancehall singer, had a song that discussed why baddy boys getting shot was a good thing.
6.11.2008 1:10pm
fat tony (mail):
"Your etymological fact is interesting, but I think your subsequent linguistic theory makes too much stew from one oyster."

Is it oysters, or snails? I always forget.
6.11.2008 4:02pm
Daryl Herbert (www):
Every pejorative word eventually traces back to some insult against a specific class of persons, even the ones we take for granted nowadays as being of generic application.
6.12.2008 1:14am
Daryl Herbert (www):
Actually, sometimes the pejorative words relate back to inanimate objects or acts. My bad. But there's always something specific at their origin.
6.12.2008 1:34am