A Dozen More Bodacious, Dandy and/or Nifty Words

By Michael

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The English language has countless ways to say “Great!” or “Cool!” When people want to sound au courant, fashionable, trendy, or with-it, they often choose slang words that are currently popular in their culture – very informal, unconventional words that may not be found in standard dictionaries, but have a freshness and color that may not be found in standard English.

Especially among young people, these words are valued because they’re used by their peers and those they admire. Popular words become unpopular when used by older people or by those they don’t admire, including advertisers who use youth slang to make their products seem contemporary. Once youth slang gets overused in advertising, it’s on its way out. After all, the point of “status slang” is that only the cool people use it.

Because they aren’t standard English, slang or cant words may not even be widely understood. They may be common only in a particular occupation or social group. In the case of underworld slang, the user hopes that only certain people (their fellow criminals) understand it, while certain other people (the police) don’t.

Slang, especially American youth slang, often has certain features:

  • Extravagant words become ironic. Instead of describing a subject of fantasy and wonder, “Oh fantastic” can merely express disappointment. Irony is cool.
  • Strong words become trivialized. Anything can be “epic” even if you wouldn’t write an epic about it.
  • Powerful words become overused. Everything is awesome.
  • Extreme is cool. A century ago, that was less true. Back then, a young British subject might mildly express his agreement by saying, “Oh, rather,” or “Yes, quite.” Today he might say, “Totally!” or “Absolutely!”
  • Abbreviation is cool. As if you can’t be bothered to make the effort to pronounce the whole word. “As I said to Princess Di – I called her Di – we were quite close…”

When you say, “Oh, totes fab” instead of “That is totally fabulous,” you are hedging your bets by leaving yourself open to an interpretation of either enthusiasm or irony. But if you are ever asked by your supervisor, “Have you finished the top-secret assignment on which your nation depends?” an answer of more than one syllable would be appropriate.

“Saved the world yet?”
“Totes.”

To add a different generational perspective, this article was written in collaboration with a 12 year old white Midwestern boy. His evaluations of these words are italicized in parentheses. And a visiting college professor in her 60s had a few comments about his comments.

  1. bodacious – You would think this word was a combination of bold and audacious. Or it may be an example of onomatopoeia, where the sound influences the meaning. Even if you don’t know its dictionary meaning, it sounds bold. Medieval linguist Dr Kate Wiles cites the Cornish dialect word bowldacious, meaning “brazen or impudent.” At least by 1837, the Midlands English dialect adverb bodyaciously meant “completely, bodily, as a body; that is, wholly.” Francis Lieber’s Americanisms (ca. 1850) says that in South Carolina, a farmer might say, “The pigs broke into my fence and destroyed the potato patch bodyaciously.” Fueled by its use in films such as An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), GenXers adopted it afresh in the 1980s. But the word had been popularized more widely after 1934 through the southern Appalachian comic strip character “Snuffy Smith” whose 1963 cartoon theme song began with the line, “Great balls o’ fire, I’m bodacious!” (Never heard it in my life.)
  2. capital – A dated, particularly British, positive exclamation. From the Latin for “head” – when you come up with a capital idea, you’re at the head of your class – it’s a top-quality idea. if you committed a capital offense, you could lose your head. Often confused with capitol, which is a building where a legislature meets. (I heard it once on a action adventure, time-travel TV show with a British character.)

    “Sir, I’ve finished typing your list of known Russian agents in Algiers.”
    “Capital. Thank you.”

  3. chill – Saying “She’s chill” is similar to saying “She’s cool.” Since 1979, the verb has been used as an exhortation to relax: “Stop worrying, just chill!” By 1985, it was used to mean “hang out,” spending time with a person or in a place. Personally, it makes me imagine a walk-in refrigerator – certainly cool but not a relaxing place to hang out. The word’s usage in the phrase “chilling effects,” as in “discouraging,” dates to the late 14th century. (At school, we usually say “Chill out, dude” when somebody is getting mad.)
  4. copacetic – Extremely satisfied. Though popular among hippies in the 1960s, it was used among African-Americans as far back as 1919. Tap danger and actor Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1877-1949) is responsible for popularizing the word and claimed he had invented it. If he didn’t, etymologists have suggested other origins – any of these sound convincing?
    • Hebrew: kol be sedher
      Creole: coupèstique
      Italian: cappo sotto
      Chinook: copacete

    (Unless I was pretending to be a smart person, I wouldn’t use it.) Our friendly professor adds, “Even some smart people wouldn’t use it unless they wanted to sound smart.”

  5. dandy – Good-looking, fashionable. First used before 1800, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary says it was probably short for jack-a-dandy. By the later 1800s, a dandy was a man who cared too much about his looks, always wanted to be seen in the latest fashions, and perhaps wasn’t known for anything else. Like other outdated words, it is often used sarcastically. Though if someone asks you how you are doing, you can say, “Fine and dandy” without sounding facetious. (I like the way an older friend says, ‘Isn’t that dandy? You got a bike for your 13th birthday.’)
  6. def – Definitely excellent. Originated in the African American community around 1979. Perhaps short for definitely – “I’ll def b there tonight” – or from the Jamaican pronunciation of death. True, like many popular slang words, that would be extreme and exaggerated. It could have the sense of “so trendy it kills me.” (I have never heard that word in my life.)
  7. dope – A Millennial way of saying cool or excellent. Originally used in this sense by African-Americans, this word could easily become “another thing white people ruined,” if it hasn’t already. The noun dope comes from the Dutch word for “sauce” and “dip. It is slang for drugs, or a stupid person, or maybe a stupid person on drugs. It also refers to the absorbent material used to turn nitroglycerin into dynamite (see below), or a thick liquid or varnish coating for hot air balloons or wing fabric. (Usually something we’d say about a piece of new technology, like a bicycle that shoots smoke out of the back.) “No, I’ve never heard that,” says our professor friend.
  8. dynamite – This explosive was invented in 1867 by Alfred Nobel, but by 1922, the word could be used for anything dangerous: “Stay away from that man. He’s dynamite.” By the mid-1960s, perhaps through African-American vernacular, this word had become positive, meaning “great” or “excellent,” like dynamic, which comes more directly from the Greek for “power.” The actor Jimmie Walker was famous for saying “Dy-no-mite!” on the situation comedy Good Times, which ran from 1974 to 1979.(I would never use it, but I’ve heard it once or twice at a bingo game.)
  9. fab, fabulous – From Latin fabulosus “celebrated in fable” and abbreviated to fab “marvelous, terrific” by 1957. By the early 1400s, it meant “mythical, legendary,” as in “El Dorado, the fabled City of Gold.” By 1600, it meant “incredible” from the French word for “unbelievable.” So in the 17th century, did fabulous mean “How wonderful” or “You’re lying”? At any rate, it came to mean “enormous, immense, amazing.” In 1963, the Beatles were called the Fab Four. (I don’t use that unless I’m telling someone they’re cute or beautiful.)
  10. hunky-dory – Used lightly, not necessarily ironically, but not seriously. Rarely used in a leader’s speech to the nation in troubled times. First appeared in print in America in 1866, and popularized by a Christy Minstrel song from which I will not quote. The word may have Dutch origins via New York City, originally a Dutch colony, perhaps from hunkey meaning “okay” (1861), which has roots in the Middle Dutch word honc: “hiding place.” The word survives in the practice of “hunkering,” which was the center of a 1959 fad, and later “hunker down” (1965), something meteorologists encourage their listeners to do during a snowstorm. An 19th century children’s Bible song about Noah and his ark says, “This is the end of my story, everything is hunky dory.” (It sounds like something a hipster mammal would say in Finding Dory.) Our professor friend says this word belongs to her mom’s generation.
  11. nifty – This dated word has the meaning of spiffy, fashionable or clever: “You found a nifty solution to that problem.” It was first used in the 1860s, such as in an 1865 poem by American Western writer Bret Harte, The Tale of a Pony, describing a fancy horse-drawn carriage:

    Smart! You bet your life ’twas that!
    Nifty! (short for magnificat).

    More likely, nifty was short for magnificent, but that wouldn’t rhyme. (What adults say when they have to talk to you when they really want to talk to your parents)

  12. rad – short for radical, used and valued by teens in the late 1970s for its sense of extremity. “That shirt is so rad!” Out of fashion in many places, but in 2012 it had been revived among Brooklyn hipsters. In 2015, it was reported that, “Rad is very alive amongst the 18-35 year olds in Northern California.” Another commentator said you have to earn the right to use this word – only hard core skaters and skateboarders allowed. For a more thorough explanation of radical, refer to my colleague Maeve Maddox. (Sometimes used by skaters.)

All of these words have been cool sometime in the last hundred years. Learning them will help you understand the writings of other people who have used them. But should you use them yourself? That depends. Each word is naturally colorful, though overuse may have faded some of them. You can use this list to add color to your writing, even if you only use these words with tongue in cheek. But don’t rely on this list to sound cool. Slang constantly changes in popularity according to region and time. In the 2010s, an expression that was cool in the 1940s may be uncool or unknown in one city, but wildly popular in another. We make no guarantees – unless you’re a 12 year old Midwestern boy at a certain middle school in 2019. Then if you follow our advice, your coolness is guaranteed.

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3 Responses to “A Dozen More Bodacious, Dandy and/or Nifty Words”

  • DAVE MATTOX

    There’s a typo in the copacetic definition. Rather than “tap danger” it should be “tap dancer.” Although I do like the sound of Tap Danger for a traveling band of merry but intense tap dancers.

  • Peter Buxton

    Tap danger and actor Bill “Bojangles” Robinson? Now that is interesting.

  • barry mcdonald

    I’d also add sarcasm as another source of how words develop. I know in Ireland, where I’m from, words can have a completely different meaning going from one county to another, with either sarcasm or the opposite meaning of a word being used to describe something.

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