Sunday, July 27, 2014

Did The Slang Use Of "Sick" Meaning "Really Good" First Come From Trinidad & Tobago?

Edited by Azizi Powell

Did the slang use of "sick" meaning "really good" first come from Trinidad & Tobago?

A commenter writing on Wiki Answers wrote that it did: Where does the slang word sick originate from?
"The term sick as slang originated in Trinidad & Tobago in the late 70's early 80's. In use in slang statements as "Dat rell sick"= that is very good or awesome in reference to a place action or event. "He di sickest"= He is the best.This has now in the last 10 yrs slowly moved in to modern western urban slang in all but one of the terms manifestations (properly yet to come), in T&T sick could also be used as the Americans term "dude". As in "Wahapen sick"= How are you. "Yes sick" = Its had been a while or glad you could make it (greeting) etc. "Wahapen to sick" there is something wrong or amiss with X.If this term is still in use by the urban population of T&T is unknown to me as I departed over 20ys+. But ask a Trini aged 33 and over who was rasied in T&T and they should concur with my description as illustrated above. CM"
I've not found any online collaboration of this comment. For instance, "sick" as a slang term isn't listed in any online Trinidad/Tobago slang dictionary that I've come across. Nor is it listed in this blog listing of “You Know You Trini when [you say or do these things]:

HOWEVER, a commenter on another blog wrote that "sick" was used in the 1990s in South London to mean "very good":
"“How and why have some words changed to a complete opposite?

How did 'sick' come to mean 'awesome' or 'really good / cool' in modern U.S. slang? I'm interested in origins and possibly regional patterns, if applicable.

This usage reminds me of the use of 'bad' to mean 'totally awesome' in the 80s. It would be interesting to know how that came about as well, and if the pattern is related...”
Victor Van Hee, asked Jul 18 '12 at 20:15

..."Whether or not other usage in youth culture pre-dates it, sick became slang for pretty much the opposite of what it traditionally means in the late '90s in South London, with predominantly black kids into the 'grime' music scene, which in turn spawned the 'dubstep' music scene. Dubstep has since become popular in the USA, and the American kids that use this word tend to be into dubstep, which originally comes from South London. When I was a kid in the '80s, 'wicked' developed in very much the same way." – paradroid Jan 29 '13 at 17:09
Note that "grime" and "dubstep" music is largely associated with Black Britons of Caribbean descent. Therefore, the South Londoners use of the word "sick" to mean 'awesome", "really good" etc in the late 1990s could have come from an earlier colloquial use of that word in Trinidad & Tobago or elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Also, several commenters who sent in entries to urban for the slang meaning of "sick" = "very good" wrote that that slang came from "chavs" (a stereotypical and pejorative referent used in Britain to refer to anti-social youth..."
used by 'chavs' to state that somethings is good
[comment from]Chav: Ooooo- dat new tune from Timbaland is sick man innit- brrap!
[response from] Law-abiding citizen: Errr, yes.
by Alex_UK December 21, 2007
Here's a 2005 urban entry for "brrap" which also includes that colloquial use of "sick" to mean "very good"information!
Used mostly by people in the london area where the sound brrap! became known as a vocal representation of a gunshot.
(When the DJ puts a sick song on)
The Crowd: Brrap! Brrap! Badboy!
by ReZa August 11, 2005
Here's an excerpt from about the influence of Caribbean immigrants on London slang:
"The large number of immigrant communities and relatively high level of ethnic integration mean that various pronunciations, words and phrases have been fused from a variety of sources to create modern London slang. The emerging dialect draws influences from Jamaican English and other Caribbean speech.[3] This form of slang was born and is mainly spoken in Inner London[3][4] and has been popularised by UK Rap music. Although the slang has been highly influenced by black immigrant communities, a large number of teenagers of all ethnicities in London have adopted it.[5] Popular slang words include sick ("good")" [and a list of other words].
Unfortunately, that article didn't provide any dates to document when those listed slang terms were first used in London.

HOWEVER, the use of "sick" to mean "very good" was documented in 1983 in the United States: "When did ‘sick’ start meaning ‘awesome’?"
Dave Wilton, Posted: 20 September 2011 02:43 AM
"Green’s Dictionary of Slang traces it all the way back to 1983:

1983 Eble Campus Sl[ang] Mar. 5: sick – unbelievably good: The Fleetwood Mac concert was sick."

Dave Wilton, Posted: 21 September 2011 12:26 PM
"So, OUP traces “sick” in a positive sense back to 1983

I’m sure that’s a reference to Connie Eble’s campus slang study that Green’s cites. Eble’s work on campus slang has been ongoing for decades and is quite well known among those who look at slang seriously."
OUP= Oxford University Press
Here's another comment about that 1983 campus usage:'sick'-to-mean-'great'
"The OED says this slang is now especially used for skateboarding and surfing, and the first quotation is from a 1983 UNC-CH Campus Slang by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill"
OED = Oxford English Dictionary
Of course, it's very possible that whoever used that slang meaning at that University Of North Carolina campus could have directly or indirectly picked it up from elsewhere- including from the Caribbean or from London.

Here's a comment that dates "sick" = "awesome" to 1987:
"I think it was originally a skateboarding slang to express "shock and awe" after seeing something cool. I'm hazarding a guess that it was first used to describe crashes. The only corroboration I can find is from and a Straight Dope forum post. Quoting the latter:

I first heard the word "sick" being used as slang on the 1987 skateboarding video put out by Powell and Peralta entitled "The Search for Animal Chin." A skater did some cool trick or whatever, and a hardcore skateboarder onlooker said, "that's sick". We thought it was hilarious, and I have heard it used ever since, though mainly among skaters/surfers/snowboarders/druggies and the like.

It is my observation that the word not so much means "cool", but carries a connotation more extreme than just that. It is used to describe something that is unbelievable, unprecedented, or just plain mind-blowing."
An article from 2011 includes the comment that
"The OED records ‘bad’ and ‘wicked’ used in a positive sense as long ago as 1897 and 1920 respectively:
She sutny fix up a pohk chop ‘at’s bad to eat. (George Ade’s Pink Marsh, 1897)

‘Tell ‘em to play “Admiration”!’ shouted Sloane. ‘Phoebe and I are going to shake a wicked calf.’ (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, 1920)

Sick is a more recent arrival, first seen as a US synonym for ‘excellent’ or ‘very impressive’ in 1983: 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..."
The title of a 1998 book about skateboarding includes the slang usage of "sick" in its title:
i(Sick): A Cultural History of Snowboarding by
Susanna Howe, January 15, 1998
Here's another quote about "sick" being used by skaters:
"Growing up as a skater we often used the term sick as a synonym for "crazy" as well .... as in "You're sick in the head because you did that trick", but it was used to indicate approval."
– Marcus_33 Jul 19 '12 at 14:12

The early use of the slang word "sick" by the skateboard and snowboard cultures is mentioned on several other websites. But I'm just not sure that that slang usage initially came from skateboarders or snowboarders.
I'm curious if any people from Trinidad & Tobago or any other person from the Caribbean can recall the word "sick" being used the ways that the first person I quoted remembered from the late 1970's -early 1980's: to mean "very good or awesome" and to mean the same thing as the Americans term "dude".

If so, please share that information for the cultural record by posting a comment below.

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  1. I've also read that the word "ill" meaning "really good", "awesome" is documented from the 1980s:
    "ill (adj)
    Slang inverted sense of "very good, cool" is 1980s "...
    But I think that slang meaning of "sick" is probably is an extension of the slang use of "sick".

  2. I would like to offer some counter evidence to the idea that the use of "sick" to mean "good" emerged in London in the late 1990s. At the end of the 1985 song "Fish" by American band Throwing Muses, one can hear a member of the band saying "Aced it!" followed by another member saying "Sick!" It's worth noting that Throwing Muses was one of the only American bands to be picked up that early (mid-1980s) by the British independent record label 4AD, which added the "Fish" track to its 1987 compilation record "Lonely is an Eyesore." So, while this is certainly not hard evidence that "sick" was in fact introduced to England in the mid to late 80s from American slang, it does open up the possibility that this is the case.

    1. Thanks for sharing that information, Unknown.

      Given that anecdote, it does appear that that vernacular use of "sick" meaning "something or someone very good" was introduced to England from (African American) slang in the early to mid 1980s.