The useful slang term badass, increasingly common in recent years, has been seemingly ubiquitous lately. It’s in movie titles (the 2012 film “Bad Ass”), and book titles from major publishers (“You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life,” “The Badass Body Diet”). The New York Times prints it regularly, always a sign of mainstream acceptance.
Not just limited to passing comment, it’s now saturating headlines, with Google Trends showing a peak in January. These are not just in online sources looking to make a point, like Mic (“Miley Cyrus and Joan Jett Just Released a Badass Cover of ‘Different’ for the Best Reason”) or MTV (“Guy Pulls Knife In College Library—But 3 Badass Students Stopped Him”). It’s also in mainstream magazines and websites, including Vanity Fair (“Meet Taylor Swift’s Badass Alter-Ego ‘Catastrophe’”), New York Magazine (“Mad Men Fashion Recap: The Birth of Badass Peggy”), and even CNN (“A Father Goes ‘Badass’ to Save His Family”).
It’s used in many product names; In 2012, the naming consultant Nancy Friedman wrote that “badass” was “practically a badge of brand honor,” highlighting products such as a wine label bragging that “you can drink rosé and still be a bad ass” and “Baby’s Badass Burgers,” an LA-based food truck. Now you can buy Badass Beard Balm, Bad Ass Coffee from Hawaii, and shop from Bad Ass Outdoor Gear, who promise to “certify every product as “Bad Ass” before we will sell it.”
“BADASS” is even the name of a British and Canadian intelligence program that spies on smartphone users.
A further sign that a word is hitting its stride is that it generates spinoff terms. (It’s a T-shirt cliché that fuck is used in many parts of speech.) Naturally, UrbanDictionary includes endless variations, of dubious currency, including badassdom, badassified, badassitude, and badasstical. But badassery is common enough to have made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. Badassness is regularly used in news articles. And there’s a well-established verb, found from the 1970s: you can go badassing your way through life.
How did we get here? Badass is not an especially new word; it arose and became common in the 1950s. It stems from two notable trends in American slang.
There’s a trope that “bad” in slang means “good,” with many other negative words being used in a positive way (sick, crazy, ill). This is somewhat misleading; the original slang sense of bad, going as far back as the 1850s, was ‘very tough; ruthless; formidable; admirably violent’. By the 1890s, this sense, common in African-American English, broadened to encompass meanings like ‘excellent; impressive; attractive’, but usually retaining a sense of vigor or toughness, so that bad wouldn’t be used of something good in a charming or dainty way. These uses, eventually spread by jazz musicians and fans, became particularly common in the 1950s, when they ran into the rise of the -ass compounds.
The free use of -ass to form punchy adjectives began in the 1920s, with words like “fat-ass” and “silly-ass.” These compounds gained in frequency in the next decades, especially during WWII, when it became increasingly acceptable to use off-color words. By the 1950s, it was particularly productive in forming new American slang. Smart-ass appears by the early 1950s, and candy-ass and crazy-ass were all first found in the 1950s.
So, by then, we were well primed for “badass.” As with bad itself,many of the early examples are in African-American use, and along the same lines: referring to an admirably tough person. The earliest known example, from 1954, already introduces the figure of the “badass nigger,” the black man who refuses to meekly submit to white society, exemplified (and popularized) by what is usually regarded as the first blaxploitation film, Melvin Van Peeples’ 1971 Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which ends with the onscreen warning, “A badass nigger is coming back to collect some dues.”
Some of these early uses were already sarcastic. An article about Marine Corps slang in 1956 notes that “a marine who postures toughness is sarcastically labeled a badass,” and a 1955 prison letter describes a “sullen kid” who “wanted to be a hard-nosed badass type.” But the admirable qualities of a badass, in black and white use, predominated, and it was (and remains) common in referring to military endeavors. Kid Rock’s 2000 anthem “American Badass” is typical of the posturing use.
What has inspired the recent popularity? Though badass is historically associated with male pugnacity, perhaps the most striking change is that the word is now often used by and about women. Several of the headlines mentioned above are in reference to women, and both of the books are aimed at them: the idea that women can be inspirational for their uncompromising toughness has captured the zeitgeist. (The Huffington Post praised Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby as “Objectively Badass” in a headline.) The writer Maria Dahvana Headley, who uses the word frequently in her Twitter feed (and twice in her new book Magonia), favors it for exactly this reason. “Badass is gloriously gender-nonspecific,” she says, unlike words like spitfire, that always carry “a hateful connotation of ‘isn’t she cute’.”
The journalist Ann Friedman examines this trend in an incisive article about the (female) photojournalist Mac McClelland. Noting that while badass denotes confidence, it most commonly “implies toughness and disaffectedness.” She quotes McClelland as being “very flattered, very honored” at the description, but McClelland goes on to caution, “It sort of depends on your definition of badass. I think that the normal definition is that you don’t have any feelings, right? So it’s like you don’t care, you’re not really comfortable, and you’re not touched by things, and you can do whatever you want.” The pressure women face “to mimic the stoicism that men have traditionally been expected to maintain in the face of hardship” is a challenge; the true badass, by contrast, is one who is not afraid to acknowledge her—or his—emotional state in times of difficulty.
And this is precisely why we should be cautious about the word’s overuse. Standing up for oneself is admirable, but suppressing one’s feelings is hardly something we should all strive for. Let’s hope that whether we emulate Sweet Sweetback, Peggy on Mad Men, or even Kid Rock, we can be confident while remaining human.