What’s your favorite word of compliment or admiration? How do you express approval? These are important questions for each generation of young people, who want their vocabulary to distinguish them from previous generations. It’s not fool-proof: a slang expression of approval is often fashionable in one place or time but not another, and may even coming back into fashion later. A word that is fashionable in one school might be considered outdated in another.
Perhaps the longest reigning compliment is “Cool!” – after an unusual run of popularity among several generations of young people, it remains fashionable in 2019. But in the last century, dozens of similar words have come in and out of fashion.
- ace – Meant “top quality,” as in the highest playing card in a standard deck. A “flying ace” in World War I meant a pilot who had shot down five or more planes in combat. A student who gets an A on a test can say, “I aced it!” But once upon a time, it was used as a positive exclamation: “Ace!” meant “Great!”
- awesome – typical of GenX youth (those born roughly between 1961 and 1981), but also used by American preteens in 2019. Example: “This popcorn is awesome!” One of several contemporary uses of a stronger word in a weaker sense, awesome originally means “producing terror,” then “full of awe” or “awe-inspiring.” Example: “The volcano erupted in an awesome shower of fire.” More recently, it has been used for anything that’s moderately interesting (such as rocks, socks and clocks in the Lego Movie song “Everything is Awesome.”) Perhaps this usage expresses a hope for a life that’s more than moderately interesting, or else, youthful enthusiasm.
- bad – An example of contrarianism in youth slang (bad means good), but still with the original connotation of “rough” or “evil.” That is, a girl would not say, “Oooh, that’s a bad bouquet of flowers! Thank you! I’ll put them in a vase right now.”
- bully – One of the favorite adjectives of U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, meaning “grand” or “excellent.” Used in this sense in Great Britain by 1680 and revived in popularity America around 1844 (“Bully for you!”). Its meaning changed from the Middle Dutch boele, meaning “lover” or “boyfriend,” later probably used similarly to “Ooh, your boele is really bad! I like him!” to the current sense of someone who is cruel to those weaker than himself. But when Roosevelt was President (1901 to 1909), it was probably as popular as cool is today, and meant approximately the same thing.
- cool – This word has also kept its Old English meaning of “low temperature.” Someone with a cool head is not hot-headed or easily angered – he has control of his passions. But a dispassionate person might also lack compassion for others, an implication of cool in the 1957 musical West Side Story. In the 1940s, tenor saxophonist Lester Young popularized the word as an expression of calm approval and satisfaction. If you ask teens in the Teens if they need anything, maybe something to eat or drink, they may respond, “No, I’m cool” or “No, I’m good.” It has been spelled “kewl,” but that’s now dated or ironic.
- crack – Used in the phrase “crack shot,” an accurate marksman, but it means good or skilled in general. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary definition involved “quickness or smartness.”
- epic – Frequently used by young gamers but common among many young male Americans, meaning “very cool and exciting,” Originally used for important events or great objects worthy of long works of heroic poetry such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Beowulf, and Paradise Lost. Political campaigners like to refer to the “epic accomplishments” of their candidate, if any, the last time her or she was in office, if ever.
- groovy – Popular in the 1960s among surfers and hippies. It even became the title of a Los Angeles television show in 1967, live from the beach in Santa Monica. But it originated in the Jazz Era of the 1920s, from the phrase “in the groove,” referring to the groove on vinyl records. If you were in the groove, you were part of the latest music scene.
- gucci – From the high-quality clothing line, used by YouTuber Matt Smith to mean “high quality” or “good.” When a former enemy becomes your friend, you can say about your relationship, “It’s all gucci.” In a 1999 magazine interview in Harper’s Bazaar, singer Lenny Kravitz calls his bedroom “very Gucci.”
- hep – According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “hep” was first used in 1862 to mark the cadence of a march, like this: “HEP 2 – 3 – 4… HEP 2 – 3 – 4…” The words “Left… left… left-right-left” served the same purpose and also made it clear which foot you should put forward when. By 1900, it had already begun to mean “trendy.” decades before it was adopted by beatniks and hippies.
- hip – Originally spelled “hep,” this word referred to the most current-conscious residents of the 1960s. Someone who was hip knew all the latest jargon, wore the latest fashions, and understood the latest ideas. To say “I’m hip with that” meant “I know what you’re talking about and I agree.” So a hippie at the time was someone who was very hip. Of course, being trendy is a moving target – the word was first used in this sense in 1904, and trends have changed substantially since then.
- mod – Beginning about 1958, the mod youth culture was typified by young sharp-dressing, scooter-riding working class Londoners, but spread around the world. So in the early 1960s, if something was mod, it was trendy. Long after mod stopped being a common compliment, an American TV series called The Mod Squad debuted in 1968 and ran until 1973. Its young undercover detective stars were more hip than mod, using solid and groovy as their compliments. The word was revived effectively later – according to a middle-aged GenXer, “That word was so 80s.”
- sick – Another example of contrarianism in youth slang. Being ill is disagreeable, but something that is sick is attractive. In other words, calling a skateboard sick is an expression of admiration. On Mark McCrindle’s list of the most annoying youth phrases in Australia, “fully sick” is number 2.
- swell – By 1786, a swell was a dandy, a fashionable person with a swollen sense of self-importance. But it became an exclamation of admiration. In the musical The Music Man, set in 1912, Professor Harold Hill warns parents against sinister influences on their sons: “Are certain words… creeping into his conversation? Words like… like swell!” But it was too late: by 1930, expressions such as “That’s just swell!” had become common in the United States.
- wild – The theme song of The Patty Duke Show (1963-1966) says about the two main characters (both played by Patty Duke) “What a wild duet!” Perhaps a 1960s reaction to the staid 1950s, where wild behavior was not acceptable.