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What does "looking mean" mean in US English?

I wrote my son was looking mean and my wife told me to take it down. Why?

For instance "Doesn't like James Dean look mean on a motorcycle?"

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  • 1
    depends very much on context. What did you think it means? Can you give some more details?
    – Esther
    Aug 30, 2022 at 20:12
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    @Esther I thought it meant "looking good", but he also has a scowl on his face.
    – leeand00
    Aug 30, 2022 at 20:16
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    Why are you asking us and not your wife?
    – cruthers
    Aug 30, 2022 at 20:42
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    You're asking us why your wife told you to take it down, right?
    – cruthers
    Aug 30, 2022 at 20:50
  • 4
    For the love of God, man.
    – cruthers
    Aug 30, 2022 at 20:52

3 Answers 3

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It might mean that he appears "aggressive" or "vicious" or "dangerous".

This can be attractive, James Dean played a character who was attractive because he was dangerous.

A good place to go to understand this expression is a google image search for "looking mean" It will give you lots of picture of people who look mean:

enter image description here

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  • This isn't really the best place to give marital advice, but when my wife tells me to do something - I usually do it, rather than try to win points by getting random internet strangers to tell her that she is wrong. See Interpersonal Skills for guidance.
    – James K
    Aug 31, 2022 at 21:25
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"Mean" usually means "not nice/rude" and is used to describe someone who intentionally does rude or hurtful things. If I say that a classmate "looks mean," I intend that the classmate looks like the kind of person who will do rude or hurtful things on purpose, just to be rude and hurtful. It is generally not a compliment.

In specific contexts, usually describing things rather than people, "mean" can be complimentary. For example, "Bob makes a mean burger" is a compliment to Bob's burger-making abilities, and "mean" can be substituted for "good/very tasty" in that sentence.

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Some negative words have come to have slang uses that are positive, examples include 'wicked' and 'sick', which in various eras of recent decades have been used, mainly by younger people, to mean something is good or impressive.

The word 'mean' is sometimes used in a positive way to mean 'good', chiefly in American English, for example "I make a mean breakfast". But it isn't really used to describe people in a positive way. It can describe someone who is not generous, but when describing someone's appearance or demeanour it means they are harsh, cruel, or angry.

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  • What about in previous decades?
    – leeand00
    Aug 30, 2022 at 20:53
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    @leeand00 'Wicked' was probably used in the late-80s in the UK. I first heard it in the classroom around 1988. Adults who wrote children's television were still using it in the early 90s and it made kids cringe. 'Sick' is more recent, in the last few years. My teenager still uses it. To the best of my knowledge, 'mean' has never been used like that. I mentioned these others in case that was the source of your confusion,.
    – Astralbee
    Aug 30, 2022 at 20:59
  • @asteralbee You're from the UK, you didn't have Jimmy Dean in the 50s; maybe it's a US thing.
    – leeand00
    Aug 30, 2022 at 21:02
  • @leeand00 - please don't make rude remarks about the UK and British people in a way that suggests they are ignorant or backward, or don't watch movies. Aug 30, 2022 at 22:05
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    @leeand00 I think you'll find that, thanks to the omnipresence of Hollywood movies, the average British person has quite a wide knowledge of both their own English and American English. The other way around, not so much. Anyway, that's what dictionaries are for. Cambridge is predominantly BrEng but notes AmEng usage; Websters (or 'Wobsters' as my dad used to call it to annoy his American colleagues) is predominantly AmEng. If you can find support for Jimmy Dean looking 'mean' then please supply references.
    – Astralbee
    Aug 31, 2022 at 7:00

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