Adverbial ‘Wicked’

Increase Mather SermonGrowing up in a rural part of New England, ‘wicked‘ was a common staple of the local vocabulary. Not ‘wicked,’ mind you, as in the sense of ‘sinful’ or ‘evil.’ New Englanders convert this adjective to an adverb, creating a synonym for ‘very.’ Relevant examples include:

That boy’s wicked smart!

Or, in an appropriately New England context:

It’s wicked cold outside!

The origins of this Yankee-ism are unclear. Some years back, a Bostonian friend suggested the fanciful notion that ‘wicked’ is a way of exorcising the demons of the Salem Witch trials. This is little more than amusing folklore (although Cotton and Increase Mather used ‘wicked’ in their share of sermon titles). Still, there is an old-fashioned ring to adverbial ‘wicked’ that prompts one to look for pre-20th-century origins.

Generally speaking, the conversion of adjectives into adverbs seems a common feature of older American speech. Take the word ‘terrible.’ A quick Google Books search reveals such 19th-Century uses as:

It is a terrible cold frost, and snow fell yesterday, which still remains …
I have thought it a terrible queer thing …
We had terrible hard fighting on the 13th …

If anything, ‘wicked’ appears to be one of the last survivors of this class in American English. (Although this trend seems to be reemerging: Note contemporary slang uses of ‘crazy,’ as in ‘This is crazy delicious!’)

Yet I can find few 19th-Century examples of ‘wicked’ being used this way. Certainly not in New England: I can locate no such ‘wickeds’ in the work of Alcott, nor in Hawthorne, nor in Melville (a New Yorker, but admissible to the New England literary pantheon on the strength of Moby Dick).

So where does this most New England of terms come from?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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18 Responses to Adverbial ‘Wicked’

  1. Ben Zimmer says:

    DARE Vol. 5 only traces the New England usage back to 1960. (There’s an obsolete adverbial sense in OED/EDD that doesn’t seem related.)

    • trawicks says:

      That’s quite strange, given that ‘wicked’ is ostensibly as traditionally New England as Cape Cod and Maple Syrup. But DARE is backed up even by the crudest internet search: Type ‘wicked cold’ into Google Books, narrowing it to 1960-present, and you get a slew of uses of the phrase in New England-set novels. Yet not one such instance occurs between 1920 and 1960.

  2. garicgymro says:

    I’m surprised you don’t mention the slang usage of adjectival “wicked” to mean “cool” or “excellent” (as in “That ride was wicked! I’m going on it again.”) The OED says it’s “orig. U.S.” and gives F. Scott Fitzgerald as the first print attestation. Not a New Englander, but he did spend a fair part of his youth in New York and New Jersey.

    • trawicks says:

      That type of ‘wicked’ appears to be common in the UK as well: The Harry Potter kids use it quite a bit in the books.

    • Lauren Melching says:

      I was waiting for him to bring that up too. But I don’t hear adjectival wicked much here in America. I hear adverbial wicked a bit more, but even its usage doesn’t seem to me to be totally “natural”. It seems to often be used in a facetious, jocular and conscious way. I’m not really sure if that “counts” or not.

      • trawicks says:

        Was that type of adjectival ‘wicked’ more popular in 1980s? The liner notes of a ‘Best of New Wave’ CD I purchased as a teenager used ‘wicked’ along with such Reagan-era terms as ‘rad’ and ‘gnarly.’

  3. IVV says:

    There’s also “hella”, which is a contraction of “hell of a”. That makes it an adjective in basic form, but the word gets used as an adverb: “That was hella cool!”

    Although, admittedly, as my teenage friend points out, “hella” is now old and out of style. So I don’t think it’s sticking.

    • trawicks says:

      I actually have quite a few peers who use ‘hella’–I don’t know if it’s going out of style necessarily so much as it never quite caught on with the general population. But it strikes me as still very viable among a small subset of American English speakers.

      • IVV says:

        It’s out of style among Northern California teenagers, apparently. Among the rest of us, not so much.

        This was a teenage girl who said it’s old, though, so it doesn’t bode well for the long term.

        • Julie says:

          I’m thinking…I used to hear it a lot, maybe ten or so years ago…among 30-somethings…perhaps that explains your teenage friend. Burner types seemed to use it constantly. So maybe it never really escaped the Bay Area? I don’t think I’ve heard it much in Sacramento.
          It was a long, long time ago that I heard a friend (my age) say something was “way cool” and had to explain to me that she’d gotten it from her kids.

        • Ellen K. says:

          Wondering who “the rest of us” is. For me, it was never in style. I think he’s right that it never caught on with the general population.

      • Lauren Melching says:

        “This was a teenage girl who said it’s old, though, so it doesn’t bode well for the long term.”

        Yeah, it’s so…like…last week 😛

  4. Eugene says:

    I would add ‘awful’ and ‘super’ to the list. I’ll bet there are more. I think it makes sense to call them intensifiers. That’s more specific than adverb and helps explain why some adjectives do this and others don’t.
    You could guess that these uses arise through a reanalysis of ‘terrible, cold day’ as ‘terrible cold day.’ It doesn’t matter too much which was terrible, the cold or the day.

    I know New Englanders who use ‘wicked’ as an intensifier – it’s not at all unusual there. I’m not sure whether the younger people are picking it up.

    • trawicks says:

      That’s a good point about ‘awful’ and ‘super;’ I’d also add ‘real’ to the list, as in ‘we had a real good time.’ You might make a case for ‘pretty’ as well (e.g. ‘The movie was pretty good’), although that one is so old (it predates Shakespeare) that it’s not as obvious a conversion as something like ‘terrible.’

      On a semi-related note, I have somewhat mixed feelings about the word ‘intensifier.’ For example, the word ‘exceptionally’ is sometimes referred to as an intensifier. Certainly it can be described as such in everyday use. But there are times when we use ‘exceptionally’ in a more deliberate way. I might say ‘he was an exceptionally poor student’ meaning he was uncommonly bad, which is more modifying his deficiency rather than intensifying it. ‘Quite’ is also sometimes cited as an intensifier, even though it’s not really used as such in British English.

      • Ellen K. says:

        Some of these also have an -ly form with the same meaning, and some don’t. “Real good time” sounds to me like a shortening of “really good time”, with the same meaning. And maybe it isn’t a shortening. But maybe it is. Without checking into it, we can’t assume that “real” leapt from adjective to adverb unmodified.

        Whether “wickedly smart” and “wicked smart” mean the same thing (both are out there) I’m not sure.

        Super, though, I think is a good example where the form without -ly is more common. Though “superly smart” does get google hits.

  5. Pedro Alvarez says:

    English dropping of -ly from most intensifier verbs:

    very odd (contrast verily)
    just mentioned ( contrast justly)
    real unreal (contrast really unreal)
    sure free (contrast surely)
    pretty ugly (contrast prettily)
    awful mad (contrast awfully)
    stark mad ( contrast starkly)
    jolly sad (contrast jollily)
    bloody victorious (contrast bloodily)
    right by the door (older hard, sore, exceeding full; contrast the senses of rightly, hardly, sorely, fully)
    (one can see) clear to the end (contrast clearly)
    most acceptable (contrast mostly acceptable)

    This list is from C-J. Bailey’s Essays on time based linguistic analysis.

  6. donna ryan says:

    As Jr. High kids, 1957 ish, we used the term ‘wicked luscious’ all the time. It caught on with the rest of New England, got shortened to ‘wicked’ and has since been immortalized in play, print, TV and film. For this, you can thank Abington Jr. High, Abington, MA

  7. Jim Little says:

    I was born and raised just West of Boston and I never heard the term “wicked” used. I left Massachussetts in 1959 but returned frequently. I first heard the term from ny niece and nephew probably 20 years ago. It may have originated from Boston.