Wicked Slang Origin: Why Does New England Say "Wicked" and What Does It Mean?
Growing up in Massachusetts I was familiar with the term. It's wicked cold and He's wicked smart were common phrases heard on a daily basis. In New England, the term is used as a substitution for "really" or "very". It wasn't until I traveled outside of the North East that I realized the slang was only used in New England. From Rhode Island, to Massachusetts, Maine and Connecticut, the slang is likely to slip into both casual and professional conversation.
Every region has their own dialect and set of unique slang terms. Y'all and fixin' can be heard in the South, while the West employs terms such as gyppo and davenport. At the same time, these terms can have a completely different meaning in a varying region of the US or even another country.
Various Uses of Wicked
The slang can have multiple meanings. From "cool" to "hellish" and "evil" the term has evolved and settled in various regions of the globe. Old English originally used the term to describe something evil or morally wrong.
Across the pond, "wicked" often connotes something that is neat or excellent. Most frequently seen in the Harry Potter Series, the kids often say "That's wicked" when excited or enthralled. This meaning has also carried it's way throughout the rest of the United States.
The Puritans were a group of Protestants from the 16th and 17th century. Some even migrated to New England, often broadly categorized as the pilgrims. Puritans were unhappy with the English Church; therefore, some became separatists and removed themselves completely. Puritans devoted their lives to the words of the Bible. With a stringent work ethic and devout ideologies, Puritans also believed in demonic forces, a trait shared by most Christians of the 16th century.
Origins of Wicked in New England
So, how did the term transform itself in New England? Well, there really is no one answer to this question as it's true origins are a bit fuzzy. We do know, however, that New England was the site of a Puritan development. These Puritans believed in demonology, often pointing fingers, exploiting who they believed to be witches. In the late 1600's, this really escalated with the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts. Often, pastors would perform exorcisms for demonic possession. In this time, "wicked" was used to describe these witches, often carrying with them a negative connotation. Wicked i said to come from the Old English word witch (wicca-).
In New England, the adjective has transformed itself into an adverb. This is common in 19th century English. Take for example the use of "awful" - it has been transformed into the adverb, "awfully". This has a similar meaning to the adverbial use of "wicked," both meaning "really" or "very". You may hear someone exclaim that they're "awfully tired," anyone would understand "awfully's" use as an adverb intensifier to signify the strength of their fatigue.. A similar thing has happened with "terrible," "real" and "pretty". In what could be the same way, "wicked" has transformed itself into an intensifier in New England.
Wicked's Current Use
The transformation of the evil connotation is thought to be around the 1960s, yet it's exact timing remains unclear. Now, the term has really centralized in Boston, Massachusetts. It has now made it's way into the business arena - used to promote New England home grown products and services. From marketing sports teams to tuna, the term has come to symbolize the community and people of New England.