I’ll start with a quiz. All of these words mean (or can mean) “really good”. Which decade do you associate them with?:
Groovy, sweet, bodacious, fab, sick, cool
If my cunning plan has worked, you will have decided that cool belongs to the 1950s or 60s, fab and groovy to the 1960s, bodacious and sweet maybe to the 80s or 90s and sick to the beginning of the 21st century. Evidence from British newspapers (The Times and others accessed through Nexis) would back you up: fab is first found in 1965, cool in 1967, groovy in 1969, bodacious in 1987, sweet in 1988, and sick in 2000.
All but one had been in use with this sense for a long time before the newspapers caught on, though. Sweet had been around for 167 years, since 1821; bodacious for 80 years, since 1907, cool for 33 years, since 1933, groovy for 32 years, since 1937 and sick for 16 years, since 1983. Fab is the exception: first recorded in 1959, it entered wider usage relatively quickly.
This reveals several interesting things about slang. First, slang words are often quite long-lived. Second, although they sometimes go out of fashion, they can come back in again: groovy and cool were embarrassingly dated by the 1980s, but they’re both in fashion again now. Third, British newspapers have never been very cool.
But what was going on with these words during their long probation period? Who was using them and how did they become widely known? Where did they come from in the first place? The last question is the easiest to answer: groovy, cool, sick and bodacious all originated in the United States; sweet and fab in Britain. Bodacious is a blend of bold and audacious and had been used to describe people and their behaviour in a negative way since 1845. In a reversal of meaning not unusual in slang, it came to mean “bold in a good way” and then narrowed to mean “good”, particularly in surfing slang from the 1970s. It was brought to the mainstream in Britain by the Bill and Ted films in 1989 and 1991 and is here to prove that it isn’t just popular music that influences the slang we use.
The meaning of cool is notoriously difficult to pin down. It has been used to mean “calm, dispassionate” since before the Norman Conquest and “assured, confident” since the 18th century. In the last few years of the 19th century, African-Americans began to use cool to mean “stylish, fashionable, attractive”, and by the 1930s, still in African-American use, it had developed the sense “excellent”. This meaning was popularized by jazz musicians from the late 1940s, adopted by the Beats in the 1950s and used by anyone with vaguely counter-cultural aspirations during the 1960s and 70s. Cool is now basically nice with designer shades on.
The story of groovy intersects with cool, in that it was first used among jazz musicians in the 1930s. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition “playing, or capable of playing, jazz or similar music brilliantly or easily; ‘swinging’; appreciative of such music, ‘hep’, sophisticated; hence as a general term of commendation: excellent, very good”. It’s closely related to in the groove, which was used with a similar range of meanings. The grooves referred to are the spiral ones cut into a record. If you were groovy, you were playing or listening to music that’s worth recording.
Sick is another slang term that has plenty of standard uses: “ill”, “nauseous”, “depraved”, “disgusted” and “macabre; dark (of humour)”. The slang sense could be a straightforward reversal of meaning, like bad and wicked, but it could also have arisen in ambiguous contexts. For example, in response to a depraved story or tasteless joke, listeners might comment Sick! meaning either “that was disgusting” or “that was really good” or even “that was really good because it was so disgusting”.
As we’ve seen, a lot of slang used in Britain comes from the US, particularly from African-American usage, and often through or in association with popular music, but sweet belongs to a more traditional source of British slang: the language of criminals, from whom it passed into wider use in Britain and Australia with the sense “fine, ready; good”. As with cool, there are lots of closely related meanings ranging from the positive she’s so sweet to the ironic in your own sweet time, so this was a sense development waiting to happen. It’s entirely possible that sweet came to mean “excellent” independently in the US and that American use contributed to its spread in Britain. It’s also possible that the band Sweet contributed towards its spread during the 1970s. It’s currently used as an interjection: Sweet!
That leaves only fab, the archetypal sixties adjective. Unusually, this is a word associated with popular music that went the other way: from Britain to the US. It’s hardly necessary to mention The Fab Four to explain this. Fab is, of course, short for fabulous, from Latin fabula “fable; story”. The “excellent” sense of fabulous only dates from around 1959 itself, the same year as the abbreviation, but fab has been a productive little word, giving rise to fabby (1971), fabbo (1984), fabuloso (2002), faburrific (2004), fabiola and fabbytastic (both since at least 2007) and, of course, abfab (1965, originally Australian).
Julie Coleman's The Life of Slang is out now, published by OUP.