"Wicked" as an intensifier

« previous post | next post »

From today's Questionable Content:

The context:


  1. Keith M Ellis said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 8:53 am

    Has that shown up on any dialect surveys? I'm a middle-aged southwesterner and if someone had asked me to associate this use of "wicked" with an origin and demographic, I'd have guessed originally southern California decades ago and then spreading widely through skateboard culture. Not…New England.

    But I have zero regular vocal interaction with New Englanders. So I'm happy to believe that This Is A Thing for them.

  2. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 9:03 am

    I've certainly heard it a lot here in New England, but it seems to me that my daughter in southern Illinois and my daughter in Atlanta both began using it about the time I first heard it here. I can't document that, though, so maybe not.

  3. mighty red pen said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 9:08 am

    "Wicked" is wicked awesome. Or if you're *really* committed, it's wicked pissah. When I started college, someone said to me, "You're from the Boston area. Why don't you say 'wicked' all the time?" "I dunno," I shrugged. Then I started saying it, just for fun. And then it was wicked hard to stop.

  4. Ben Zimmer said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 9:12 am

    Here's the relevant entry in DARE:

    wicked adv
    Pronc-sp wikkit
    [Cf EDD wicked adj.1, adv. 5 “Obs. Very, exceedingly; used as an intensitive.”]
    New England, chiefly Maine, Massachusetts

    Very; extremely; really—esp in adj phr wicked good; also rarely adj, very great.

    1960 Wilson Let’s Barter 66 NEng, Justin Persons never spent time or brawn drilling into that wicked hard granite mountain.
    1974 Bennington Banner (VT) 28 Mar 12/7 ME, They were wicked good.
    1979 Lewis How to Talk Yankee [39] nNEng, “How was the horsepulling?” “Wicked good. Seth took top money with his new team.”
    1981 Seventeen Letters MA, The word “wicked” when used by teens in New England, particularly the Massachusetts, Greater Boston area, does not mean evil or bad, but “very” or extra in such phrases as “wicked cute” . . or “wicked hard.”
    1981 DARE File ceMA, In my town, instead of saying “very”, we say “wicked.” It is used in sentences like “I would like to see her a wicked lot,” or “I’m wicked sorry.”
    1982 Chaika Speaking RI [9], Wicked = extremely, as in “wicked good” aw [=or] “wicked depressed.”
    1999 DARE File ME, Now that was a “wicked” quick reply. The use of the word wicked for ‘very’ always amuses me. I think it is a Maine thing.
    1999 DARE File—Internet [Boston Online Wicked Good Guide to Boston English], Wicked—A general intensifier: “He’s wicked nuts!”
    2006 DARE File—Internet RI, Wikkit—An intensifier that’s interchangeable with “very,” as in, “We was drivin’ wikkit fast.”

  5. Rob P. said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 9:14 am

    Keith M Ellis – I would associate wicked as an adjective with California surf/skate culture ("that was a wicked trick") as opposed to the intensifier use that is very Boston to me (Newbury Comics slogan "a wicked good time," students referring to "a wicked hard test").

  6. Rube said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 9:32 am

    FWIW, I don't remember hearing it before "Good Will Hunting", which was, of course, about a quintessentially Boston character.

  7. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 9:35 am

    I grew up in Maine (Albion) in the 30s and I don't remember ever hearing "wicked" used for "very." I still call trash "cultch" and a big skillet a "spider."

  8. Jon Lennox said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 9:40 am

    Given that Questionable Content takes place in Northampton, I actually think this joke isn't a correct representation of the local dialect (though funny). I grew up in Northampton, and unless the local dialect has shifted substantially in the past twenty years, "wicked" isn't part of it. "Wicked" is much more part of the Eastern Massachusetts dialect (the Boston non-rhotic one), whereas the Northampton/Connecticut River Valley dialect is much closer to General American. (Western Massachusetts was settled up the river from Connecticut, not west from Boston.)

  9. JB said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 9:56 am

    As someone who grew up in Southeastern Mass. in the 1980s and had relatives on the North Shore (north of Boston), I can attest to its widespread usage as an intensifier in Eastern Mass. at the time, although I also tend to associate it with people who use the non-rhotic local accent.

  10. Dennis Paul Himes said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 10:02 am

    I live in Connecticut and I associate that use of "wicked" with Eastern Massachusetts. As Jon Lennox pointed out, Western Mass. (e.g. Northampton) is more like Conn. than it is like Eastern Mass. in terms of dialect.

  11. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 10:34 am

    Jon Lennox: It's quite possible that Angus is form Boston, and that Faye has picked up the expression from him rather from the neighbourhood generally. (I don't think we've ever been told specifically where Angus is from.)

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 10:37 am

    I believe the intensifier "hella" may be the rough Northern Californian equivalent to Eastern New England "wicked." Not sure if that extends down to the traditional SoCal heart of skateboard culture.

  13. John K said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 10:39 am

    I grew up in southern Maine in the 1970's and it was common then. When I went to college ~1980 I recall hearing someone from eastern Massachusetts say something like "I wicked want to go to that concert". That struck me as a novel usage.

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 10:41 am

    Note btw that L.L. Bean describes some of its products (e.g. toasty-warm bedroom slippers) as "Wicked Good," from which I take it that they think or at least hope their customers will associate the phrasing with rugged-outdoorsy-WASP Down-Eastiness, and not just working-class-South-Boston-Irishness, because I don't think the latter regional sensibility is what they're trying to market.

  15. Vanya said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 10:52 am

    I grew up in central New Hampshire in the late '70s and "wicked" was certainly used there as an intensifier, and had been as long as anyone could remember. I moved there from DC, where it was not used that way, and the use of "wicked" was a one of the big dividing lines between my speech and that of my classmates, along with the fact that I pronounced H20 as "wuddr" in my DC/Southern Maryland drawl.

  16. David M said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 11:17 am

    I grew up in CT (Fairfield County, which is part of NYC's metro region rather than Boston's), am in my early forties, and have lived in Boston for the last 14 years. I remember "wicked" being used this way as fad in the early eighties, which went out of style pretty quickly. I've since become aware of it as a marker others use to indicate Boston speech (I'm thinking of the Saturday Night Live skits in the 90s with drunk Sox fans saying "wicked" a lot and raving about "Nomaaaaaaaah" Garciaparra.) But like "Beantown," it's something I don't think I've ever heard an actual native Bostonian say.

  17. Ethan Bradford said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 11:21 am

    I first hear "wicked" as an intensifier from Maine cousins, using it non-ironically, in the early 80's. The "Wicked Good Band", which does Maine-based humorous ditties, obviously thinks it suggests Maine.

  18. Mr Punch said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 11:21 am

    When I grew up in the '50s and '60s in Boston's western suburbs, I took this use of "wicked" as a sure sign the speaker was from Maine.

  19. Gabe Ormsby said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 11:29 am

    Growing up in mid-to-late 70s in New Hampshire (Claremont area, west central) my classmates and I used "wicked" all the time. I recall a teacher who didn't like the sinful implications urging us to say "whipping fast" instead of "wicked fast." It didn't take. When my family later moved to Minnesota, my use of "wicked" stood out.

  20. Brett said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 12:02 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: When I was a graduate student at MIT, I associated "wicked" much more with the blue-collar Charlestown neighborhood where I lived than with the more upscale part of Cambridge where I worked. (On Bunker Hill, there was a regular problem with pro-Whitey Bulger graffiti.) 'Wicked," like most of the regionalisms I became familiar with, has just the kind of working-class-Irish associations you suggest. However, I have always been aware that many or most of the people I interacted with regularly around Cambridge and Somerville were transplants, and I was never sure how much of the blue collar flavor I felt for the regional dialect was due to most of my interactions with lifelong locals being with people from lower middle class backgrounds.

  21. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 12:19 pm

    I think Vanya's childhood "wuddr" was probably the same Mid-Atlantic pronunciation spelled "wooder" in the Philadelphia-eye-dialect piece linked in another recent post. Not native to New Hampshire, perhaps, but not part (or at least not exclusively part) of speech varieties that would commonly be described as a "drawl."

  22. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 12:21 pm

    Come to think of it, "wuddr/wooder" for "water" was one of perhaps four shibboleths as to which my 8th-grade English teacher tried fairly aggressively to deprecate local regional usage (this was in northern Delaware in the late '70's) in favor of the national prestige standard.

  23. Mara K said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 1:01 pm

    I associate "wicked" with Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter movies. Are the English and New Englandish (New English?) usages related?

  24. Ben Zimmer said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 1:12 pm

    Mara K: I don't believe Ron Weasley ever used "wicked" as an adverbial intensifier — he just used it as an approbative adjective/interjection, which is much more widespread (see discussion above re SoCal usage).

  25. Mark Mandel said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 1:49 pm

    I lived in Boston and its suburbs (Marlboro, Framingham) for 20 years, ca. 1980–2001, and I certainly heard "wicked ADJ" from the start of my time there.

  26. Victor Maurice Faubert said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 1:51 pm

    I am originally from the St Lawrence River Valley in northern New York State and the usage was new to me fifteen years ago, when I first heard it in Cape Breton; it is widespread there, often as an exclamation after a fine fiddle performance or superb step dance, “Wicked!” or as a description of the performance, “wicked good playing”. I have since heard it used both ways throughout the Maritimes, Maine, and northern New England.

  27. D-AW said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 2:24 pm

    The character named Morgan in Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's Good Will Hunting says (of Matt Damon's character) "My boy's wicked smart." "Wicked smaht", "wicked awesome", and "wicked hammahd" (more than "wicked drunk") are the three main phrases I would associate with Boston-area "wicked ADJ". I see on the Google that "wicked hammered" is now associated with a memorable quotation by Andy Bernard from The Office. It would be interesting to know who on the writing staff was responsible for that collocation.

  28. Stephen Hart said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 2:56 pm

    From Wikipedia:
    "The Macintosh IIfx is a model of Apple Macintosh computer, introduced in 1990 and discontinued in 1992….
    Dubbed "Wicked Fast" by the Product Manager, Frank Casanova – who came to Apple from Apollo Computer in Boston, Massachusetts where the Boston term "wicked" was commonly used to define anything extreme-"

  29. jonathan said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 3:14 pm

    Gosh, a Language Log thread where I'm an expert. Grew up SoCal 70s/80s, moved to Boston 90s/00s. I now use "wicked" as an adjective intensifier, and the SoCal term that it displaced was "way". E.g. "That was way cool!" –> "That was wicked cool!"

  30. a George said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 6:31 pm

    The French seem to use an expression with a similar connotation: "malin".

  31. errorr said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 6:37 pm

    I grew up chiefly in N. Cal and DC and when I went to college I had never heard wicked used that way. Lo and behold my roommate was from Providence and it was his primary intensifier as was common amongst the most northern NE types.

    I still largely associate it with greater Boston but see it more often. I also have a largely negative reaction that relates to the appalling racism of said users of wicked. Not to say it has anything to do with racism, I just found the racism of the people appalling and they just happened to use the phrase.

    Although I will say my roommate should not be included among the wicked racists.

  32. Rubrick said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 6:40 pm

    I suggest listening to Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" with this interpretation in mind. Adds a whole new level.

  33. Brett said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 7:00 pm

    @D-AW: The fixed phrase I associate most with "wicked" is "wicked pissah," but "pissah" isn't really an adjective on its own. "Wicked smart" I remember being pretty common, but my personal favorite was "wicked weird."

  34. Keaton said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 7:24 pm

    So apparently I'm way out of the norm here, but I grew up in eastern Washington, and the first people I ever heard using wicked as an intensifier (which was in the 90s) were from western Canada.

  35. Seonachan said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 10:43 pm

    I grew up in Haverhill, north of Boston, in the 70s and 80s and this usage was wicked prevalent. Among my friends, whenever we caught ourselves being being overly critical/dismissive of someone, we would end the commentary with "And I'm wicked cool" as a sort of mea culpa.

    I've also spent a lot of time in Cape Breton, but contra Victor Maurice Faubert, I have never heard wicked used as an intensifier there, though I suppose I might not have noticed it as being unusual to my ears (unlike so much else in their speech). There are lots of stories (and a few songs) about Gaelic speakers returning from work in New England with Boston accents and feigned ignorance of their native language, but I'm not sure wicked was around back then.

  36. Chris C. said,

    March 5, 2014 @ 1:34 am

    I saw this after Jeph posted it last night, and my first thought was, "I bet I'll see this on LL soon!"

    It's perhaps relevant that Faye here grew up in the Deep South; Georgia if I'm remembering right. So "wicked" would be utterly foreign usage to her.

    As others have pointed out, the writer here lives in Hampshire himself, so he no doubt is reflecting the dialect surrounding him. (His comment on this strip was, "Chowdaaah…")

  37. phspaelti said,

    March 5, 2014 @ 2:21 am

    I picked this up in Western Mass in the 80s (from locals). But Amherst is a college town, and iso there is influence from Eastern Mass.

  38. Goatherd said,

    March 5, 2014 @ 8:39 am


    I grew up near Boston, and we definitely used "pissah" as an adjective on its own. "Wicked pissah" was even more pissah.

  39. saucyturtles said,

    March 5, 2014 @ 9:35 am

    I'm from Central Mass. (yes there is something other than Western Mass. and Greater Boston), and I was amused by my much younger cousin, who had moved to Michigan, reporting in wonder, "they don't use 'wicked' there!" Yes, we used it this way, and apparently they still do there.

  40. Francois Lang said,

    March 5, 2014 @ 1:31 pm

    FWIW, my freshman college roommate was born and bred in Indiana (this was 1976) and used "wicked" in this sense.

  41. ShadowFox said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 1:15 am

    1. @Jon Lennox Northampton has become as much "Massachusetts" as Cambridge or Newton, meaning that it's been mostly populated by out-of-staters and not from the strata that would use "wicked" to begin with.

    2. I first heard "wicked" from friends in Weymouth (both parents and kids born and raised there or nearby) in 1995. I have never heard it from anyone from Newton, but I know that my kids have picked it up in Newton elementary schools (one is still in elementary school, the other moved to middle school). So it has certainly spread there, but it took many years. Not surprised it made it across the country.

    3. The use that I've seen included standard adjectival, like the one in the cartoon, "wicked good" as a complement in "That's wicked good", and just plain "wicked" where "wicked good" would otherwise be used.

    4. My first distinct memory of "wicked" is from SNL, where it was used by Adam Sandler's recurring blue-color Massachusetts "townie" character. He used mostly "wicked piss@", but an occasional "wicked" as well. As I recall it, I'd never heard the expression prior to the show, despite living in Massachusetts since 1983, but I might be mistaken and might have also heard it right after having heard it from my friends. It was close enough that I remember discussing it with them. But the specific sequence is fuzzy.

    5. Another expression I heard around the same time, but from a different Mass resident, was "for shits and giggles" (as in, "they are doing it for shits and giggles", for fun, for no reason), which I only recently heard in a TV program for the first time. So it's been more than 15 years in between. Plenty of ghits though (millions, including for-shits-and-giggles.com and 4-shits-and-giggles.tublr.com).

  42. Alex said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 8:00 am

    I think I've heard New Englanders say that "wicked" makes them special more than I've actually heard them use it as an intensifier. Then again, maybe I didn't live in New England long enough to make a judgment.

  43. Alex said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 8:04 am

    To be clear: my point is not that NEers don't use wicked as an intensifier, but that they really do enjoy talking about it.

  44. Fidelia Pentreath said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 12:40 pm

    I'm from Rhode Island and I say wicked a lot.

    You heard "wicked" more in non-rhotic dialects of Rhode Island and Eastern Mass than in rhotic ones; in Camberville/Boston, there's also the influence of The Universities to reduce everyday usage, but nonetheless it's still present and occasionally disseminates to non-local speakers even at The Universities.

    As a side note the input of non-local speakers also means if you went to school here you might have a diverse idiolect – I had roommates from Singapore who attended public school in the UK and as a result use some Singaporeanisms/Britishisms that have subsequently spread to my friends a decade later. You see and hear a lot of non-local vocabulary spoken in local dialect. I still "check post" – go to the mailbox – some 15 years after I stopped being around the speakers who said that, and my younger friends have picked it up as well.

RSS feed for comments on this post