23

Being a fan of a dubstep music, I often see comments like this:

"Looooove this tune! The bass drop is so sick!..."

To my understanding, sick has negative connotation. Merriam-Webster defines this word as "affected with a disease or disorder", either physically or mentally.

However, the phrase above looks rather positive (even if followed with something like "...my ears were bleeding").

What's the point?

Bass drop

  • 1
    Do not say "how to understand it?". Always use "What does it/that mean?" – temporary_user_name Feb 4 '13 at 22:45
  • Never say "always" on ELL or ELU :) – Mari-Lou A Nov 22 '13 at 7:10
  • 1
    @Mari-Lou, never say never – Octopus Aug 31 '15 at 20:46
13

Very good question. Generally speaking, this is an example of what we call slang. I'm sure your native language has it, too, but just to make sure we're on the same page:

Slang is a subset (superset? intersection?) of the English language used in informal settings. It does not require proper grammar, it allows skipping or adding words unconventionally, and, perhaps most importantly, it allows words to take on new definitions completely unrelated to their "real" definitions. These definitions simply evolve over time in the vernacular and really have no proper origins.

Some other examples of English slang words, all meaning roughly "very good", "impressive", etc. (I'm sure you're familiar with most):

  • wicked
  • awesome
  • boss
  • crazy
  • ridiculous
  • nasty
  • sick-nasty   (a personal favorite)
  • 9
    This is one bad answer! – J.R. Jan 29 '13 at 19:56
  • 4
    @J.R. lol, I was offended for a second there. – Ken Bellows Jan 29 '13 at 19:59
  • Definitely a sub-set, according to my teachers – mcalex Jan 30 '13 at 12:41
  • @mcalex I like to think of slang as an independent set that intersects with proper English. Most words and phrases are contained within English, but there are some that lie completely outside of the English language (e.g. "bonkers" has no meaning besides the slang meaning crazy/daft), and therefore can't be a subset. In fact, if all of English is allowed in slang, it could be considered a superset. – Ken Bellows Jan 30 '13 at 13:07
  • Although I suppose you could argue that slang must be a subset of English, as it's unique to English speakers (specific vocabulary, not the concept) and when a word becomes slang it also becomes English. Then it's a proper subset. – Ken Bellows Jan 30 '13 at 13:09
25

The New Oxford American Dictionary has a note about sick.

A common trick of slang is to invert meanings, so that seemingly negative words are used as terms of approval— bad and wicked are two established examples, with positive uses dating back to 1897 and 1920, respectively. Sick is a more recent arrival, first seen as a synonym for excellent or very impressive in 1983: "It was a sick party and there were tons of cool people there." It is particularly common in skateboard and snowboard culture, where it can be used to imply an element of risk and danger: "Shawn is a badass skater. He busts some sick tricks."

  • Good point. Just found "mad" and "hysterical" matching the rule. – bytebuster Jan 29 '13 at 20:04
  • 2
    In Australia/NZ one of the higher forms of appreciation is 'fully sick, mate/bro'. @bb add: wicked, bad, dope. OTOH, mad and hysterical are not so much inversion, as appreciation of qualities that conventionally aren't appreciated. – mcalex Jan 30 '13 at 12:40
  • 4
    I find it rather hilarious that the New Oxford American Dictionary uses the phrase "Shawn is a badass skater." – Ken Bellows Jan 30 '13 at 13:13
6

It seems I have found an answer. The key word is antagonym or contranym. According to their definitions, they are the words that are antonyms to themselves.

This article contains a broad list of those. I will copy here only the most useful that may help further visitors:

Apparent: Not clear or certain ("For now, he is the apparent winner of the contest.") vs. Obvious ("The solution to the problem was apparent to all.")
Assume: To actually have ("To assume office") vs. To hope to have ("He assumed he would be elected.")
Bad: There is the normal meaning and the slang meaning of "good" (sometimes pronounced baad for emphasis).
Clip: to attach vs. to cut off
Cool: positive sense ("cool web-sites") vs. negative sense("cool reception").
Effectively: in effect (doing the equivalent of the action but not the real thing) vs. with effect (doing the action and doing it well). Contrast "he is effectively lying" with "he is lying effectively".
Fast: Moving rapidly vs. Unable to move ("I was held fast to my bed.")
Fix: to restore to function ("fixing the refrigerator") vs. to make non-functional ("fixing the dog")
Inflammable (a pseudo-antagonym): Burns easily vs. "Does not burn" Only the first definition is correct; due to the risk of confusion has removed this word from gasoline trucks.
Last: Just prior vs. final ("My last book will be my last publication")
Lease, Let, Rent: [in essence] To loan out for money vs. To "borrow" for money
Left: To remain vs. to have gone ("Of all who came, only Fred's left.")
Mad: carried away by enthusiasm or desire vs. carried away by hatred or anger.
Overlook: to pay attention to, to inspect ("We had time to overlook the contract.") vs. to ignore.
Policy: Required activity without exception ("University policy") vs. An optional course of action ("our government's policy regarding the economy")
Quite: Completely vs. Not completely (e.g., quite empty = totally empty]; quite full = not completely full, just nearly so)
Refrain: In song, meaning to repeat a certain part vs. To stop ("Please refrain from using bad language")
Replace: Take away ("replace the worn carpet") vs. Put back ("replace the papers in the file")
Sanction: Support for an action ("They sanctioned our efforts.") vs. A penalty for an action ("The Congressman was sanctioned for inappropriate behavior.")
Sick: unpleasant ("A sick joke") vs. wonderful. Slang: ("That sportscar is really sick!")
Transparent: Easily seen ("His motives were transparent.") invisible

  • 2
    I wouldn't consider "sick" to be an antagonym or a contranym if that would mean classifying itself as an "antonym to itself", at least not in the context you gave, since the meaning is not "That bass drop is 100% disease free", but rather "That bass drop is pleasurable to experience." – Ken Bellows Jan 29 '13 at 20:20
  • @KenB I agree, it's not an antonym to itself in a medical context, but shifting to "pleasant/unpleasant" seems also valid. The common meaning is medic, and an average ELL would most like be aware about only medical meaning, ending up with a confusion. Likewise "refrain" = "repeat" make only sense in music. – bytebuster Jan 29 '13 at 20:25
1

English, like many languages, has slang words. These "hip" words change from time to time and it seems that sick is one of those odd words that currently holds a positive connotation.

I think the origin comes from xtreme sports like snowboarding or skateboarding, where people would refer to the tricks as "sick" when they were executed well. Regardless, it's the current slang so not a bad idea to get used to the idea of it being used in a positive manner.

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