I have felt sad for around 20 years about what has happened to the word badass.
This lasting sorrow crept upon me one morning back when the movie Pulp Fiction was fresh in the cultural dialogue; so let’s say 1995. I was carpooling toward work with a colleague who I would fire from his job a month later. We were magazine editors.
“Samuel L. Jackson,” said my colleague, flicking on his turn signal, “is such a badass.”
This statement rendered me speechless. Factually, my coworker was 100 percent correct. Jackson’s Pulp Fiction character is exactly what this soon-fired editor said Jackson was. What left my mind hanging open was that this mook behind the wheel had said badass out loud. My brain could not process the vibrations my ears were sending.
Badass, like commersh, was a word I had hardly heard since I was playing feral in the wilds of Los Angeles County’s San Gabriel Valley. These were the days when a 16-year-old THC enthusiast was expected to slip through the service entrance of a closed bowling alley at 2:00 a.m. to buy vials of honey oil from a 24-year-old hard guy seasoned by a year in Vietnam.
A high-school friend of mine was my co-investor on this deal. He liked to tell me I needed more self-esteem. I thought of him as a braggart.
The Vietnam vet fired a Zippo lighter beneath tinfoil and treated my friend and I to tastes of the honey oil as if my friend and I were equals to him and had an option to back out of this deal. The honey oil was pretty good. I drifted.
“I can score kilos,” my co-investor said, out of nowhere. I understood that he was not really my friend. “If you want a connection for weed,” he said, looking the vet directly in the eyes and holding it. “I can set that up.”
“You would do that for me?” said the hard guy. “And your guy, your connection, he’s standup?”
“Oh, man, yes!” gushed my acquaintance. “He’s a badass!”
The vet took a moment: “A kid like you, do you know what a badass is?”
Badass has become ubiquitous. The term is applied to earnest individuals worthy of praise and admiration, but rarely does it denote a person who inspires awe: “A feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.”
The thing is, I knew what a badass was. Professional football player Deacon Jones was a badass. Sonny Barger, president of the Hell’s Angels, was one too. The Rolling Stones, on the other hand, were not badass. They were rock stars. What the badass had, that a rock star did not have, was the fearsome inclination to inflict grievous bodily harm upon grown men at any instant with no seeming provocation.
Although I did not know the dictionary definition of awesome at the time, a badass fit that definition—“causing feelings of fear and wonder; causing awe.”
“You’re deciding who’s a badass?” said the vet. “Who do you think you are?”
On that workday morning in 1995, as I watched a soon to be out-of-work editor drive his car toward a Beverly Hills office, I thought. You’re deciding who’s a badass? Who do you think you are?
“Did you watch Saturday Night Live?” asked the editor. “It was awesome.”
Right then, in the voice of a fellow worker in words, a guy with thick glasses and soft hands who had butchered awesome on top of uttering the ineffable badass, I heard the trickle of floodgates about to open. Personally, at age 16, I’d been taught to use that word far more judiciously. In 1995, some prudent reticence in the larger world was breaking down.
In the years since this discomfiting morning commute, badass has become ubiquitous. The term is applied to earnest individuals worthy of praise and admiration, but rarely does it denote a person who inspires awe: “A feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.”
A badass web search finds the term applied to: A mother-daughter duo who rode horses along a long and strenuous trail, a performance by Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert, an actor who has been tapped as the face of Rémy Martin cognac, and a Canadian politician named Justin.
Some realities we hold as self-evident. For instance, no one owns a word, and every human being with a keypad, pen, pencil or tongue has the right to embellish their personal vocabulary with deviations from strict language norms. That means you can make up or pervert words as you go along, and nobody should shoot you or put you in jail for it. The vernacular, it’s pointless to argue otherwise, is democratic. Precise definitions shift with popular opinion.
Intellectually, I agree that nobody looks good while bemoaning inevitable change, or fighting progress, but I have feelings.
Badass and awesome both formerly conveyed meanings so freighted with menace that a discerning adult might be highly selective about speaking its name. What words do we have left to conjure that huge sort of dread? How in a single word can our language communicate the inexorable forces that dwarf us and from which we recoil?
The post-millennial world contains as much awesome and badass as any previous world has ever contained. But now that literally has come to mean figuratively, literally, it’s harder to tell each other some of the things we really need to know.