My latest column for the Visual Thesaurus, “Laughing Matters,” looks at the spread of ludicrous, ridiculous, and absurd (and their adverbial counterparts) as positive intensifiers. Full access to the column is restricted to subscribers; here’s an excerpt.
On the language-of-humor scale, where funny, droll, and amusing are positive or neutral, ludicrous, ridiculous, and absurd have traditionally skewed negative: You might say yes to an amusing hat, but not a ridiculous one. And yet here we are in Branding Land, circa 2017, where disparaging modifiers such as ridiculous are paired with positive words like delicious and attached to messages intended to persuade and sell, such as "Ridiculously Tasty Beer" (for Full Sail brewery), "Ludicrous Small Batch" (for the new Seven Caves Spirits distillery), and "Absurdly Fresh Groceries" (Good Eggs grocery-delivery service).
“Ludicrous performance”: poster in Tesla showroom, Glendale, California.
One source for this semantic shift may be the language of sports, where, as language maven Ben Yagoda told me via Twitter, sportscasters have evinced a "recent fondness for calling a great play 'ridiculous'" (or even, sometimes, "stupid"). I don't follow sports closely enough to have noticed this trend, so I looked it up. In short order I discovered "One of the most ridiculous [read: excellent] plays of the 2017 season" (SB Nation), "Manny Machado Made a Ridiculous [read: impressive] Play Yesterday" (NBC Sports), "a ridiculously [read: outstandingly] good closer" (Business Insider, on Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Kenley Jansen), and "ridiculously [read: extremely] fast" (in a 2007 book about baseball). I also found plenty of stupidly intensifiers, and not only in sportswriting: "stupidly fiery" hot peppers, "Stupidly Simple Snacks" (a cooking show), "The Stupidly Simple Way to Stop Bombing on Your Goals," and many more.
“Absurdly flavorful”: PrePOPsterous popcorn.
On the other hand, we may be looking at the Zoolander Factor. To see why, read the rest of the column.
Bonus link: Ben Zimmer wrote about the positive sense of ridiculous for the Boston Globe back in 2011 (but I hadn’t known – or, more likely, remembered – until after my column was published). Here’s what Ben turned up:
The word first flip-flopped from negative to positive in the late 1950s, cropping up in jazz circles. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the usage back to 1959 (“His technique is ridiculous!”) and quotes the 1960 book “The Jazz Word” as saying, “To a jazzman...ridiculous is wonderful.” A 1955 interview with Dave Brubeck in the oral history “Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya” may offer a clue to how being ridiculous became respected in the jazz world. Brubeck describes how a jazz combo can begin with an arrangement and then have soloists freely improvise, before “going out” with the arrangement again. “And when we’re playing well,” Brubeck explains, “the out parts are ridiculous, usually, because the inner parts have come up to the level where you’re truly improvising.”
And much more. Go read Ben!