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Wicked Slang Origin: Why Does New England Say "Wicked" and What Does It Mean?

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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. Some people even want to learn this accent for themselves - something that I don't think I'll ever quite understand.

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.

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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.

Puritans

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.

New England Puritans

New England Puritans

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.

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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.

Comments

Millenial Troll on April 09, 2020:

In New Hampshire, where I grew up and whose accent I like the most, we intonate the word, wicked when we use it. Yes, we use it adverbially, but the intonation is important. If you don't intone WICKED before cool, awesome, dark, dank, nice, whatever adjective, then it's a waste of a regional expression.

I would also like to say, I recently drove to Conway and visited a trestle on the outskirts of the town. A man, whom I presume to be in his 60's/70's was sitting at a picnic table, smoking and reading the paper. I spoke with him and he had that classic NH accent. It's appropriately heard as the in-between of Mass and Maine accents. It's my favorite. I have never heard a person in my generation or younger speak with this accent. Youngest I've heard was from a forty-something in Contoocook, NH. Otherwise I think it's dead, which I think is sad. It's very... I mean WICKED redneck, like the Maine accent. But they differ. To me, the Maine accent sounds like a pretentious redneck, whereas the NH accent is like a good ol' boy of the North. When I hear the Maine accent, I don't think it makes the person more interesting, rather it dulls their already dull personality. It's the northern version of what I would expect from somebody from backwoods Kentucky, a New England Joe-Bob. NH is not too far off but the NH accent comes off as more free-spirited to me. Maybe I am full of crap? When I think of the NH accent I think, "F*ck ya dude!" or "Ya pal" But I think that the Mainers say that too. The distinction is biker redneck (NH) vs. farmer/fisherman redneck (Maine). But like I said, I think it's falling into obscurity.

My parents and extended family are from Southie, Dorchester, Milton, etc. They have the real Boston accent, lucky massholes that they are. I can't even fake it. All I got is 'Wicked.'

Alan on September 03, 2019:

I grew up in Beverly, MA in the 60s. Something cool could be said to be ballsy (it was not considered a swear, even for a 4 yr old) a little cooler was wicked, usually exclaimed, "Oh Whicked! But better yet was the exclamation, "That's Whicked Ballsy!"

Pete on June 10, 2019:

I was born in the early 60's and lived in Maynard, Ma. "Wicked cool" was a common phrase. Saying the word "Dink" could get you in trouble and calling somebody a "Moe" was a putdown.

John on February 26, 2019:

I moved to North Attleborough, Ma. In 1968 and attended Noth Attle High. It was common usage in Town but i never heard it in R.I. a mere 4 miles away. Nor did I hear it in Attleboro, the next town over. It wasn't until years later that I heard it spread throughout New England.

Ken on January 12, 2019:

“Wicked cool “ was started by some college boys in the early 80’s at a college in New Hampshire. It meant the coolest of cool.

Art on December 27, 2017:

Grew up in Springfield, Mass in the 70s and 80s and it was rare to hear wicked. That was a Boston thing.

Ontrpnr on October 27, 2017:

You haven't travelled enough. I grew up in Saratoga County, NY and we used the work "wicked" all the time.

Abd Alrahman Damash on January 05, 2017:

Thank u very much for your explanation ..

Lynn on September 20, 2016:

They were using wicked in this way in Down East parts of Maine when I got here in 1969. I have heard it continually here ever since, and was surprised to hear Dunkin Donuts claiming it for Boston! Lately, I've been seeing it used in novels written in Great Britain and New Zealand. Is it spreading or is there an ancient English origin? This article would indicate the former.

Red Mann on February 01, 2016:

I grew up in Townsend, Mass and left to join the Navy in 1964. I don't remember hearing the word "wicked" used that way, so I'm thinking it happened after 1964.

Betsy on December 02, 2015:

I think it started in Maine

Suzie from Carson City on May 31, 2015:

alyssa.........a wickedly interesting hub! Thank you. I enjoyed it.

Ann Carr from SW England on June 29, 2014:

'Wicked' was used for a while here in Britain to mean 'cool' or 'really good' but has faded a little. Now the word 'sick' is used instead; not such a good choice I feel!

The French use the word 'terrible' in the same way, so I guess these things are world-wide. It's fascinating how our language is manipulated in this way, mainly by the young.

Ann

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 13, 2014:

I lived in Maine for a few months and had to get used to the term up there. Very different.

Alyssa S (author) from USA on March 26, 2014:

Thank you! Those not from New-England always seem to get a kick out of it; what's everyday language up here is foreign elsewhere, funny how that works.

Elizabeth from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions on March 26, 2014:

Love this hub! My wife is from Maine, and I had to get used to hearing wicked a lot

Twilight Lawns from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K. on March 21, 2014:

Wickid!!!

(Flips fingers and kisses teeth0

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on March 20, 2014:

As Twilight Lawns, I live in an area with a high - mainly Asian - immigrant population. Their vocabulary is generally limited and 'wicked' covers a lot of ground, along with 'is it?' or 'innit' (i.e., 'isn't it').

There's a TV advert here that markets a brand of 'alcopops' called 'W.K.D', and shows the drinkers getting up to all manner of pranks to underline the 'wicked' influence. No prizes for guessing the sales for 'W.K.D' have taken off.

Alyssa S (author) from USA on March 20, 2014:

Thank you! It's use is definitely spreading, especially with the young generation. I almost wish it was used more in the US in that context.

Twilight Lawns from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K. on March 20, 2014:

An extremely well written and interesting hub. I liked it a lot. Thank you.

Interestingly enough, the word "Wicked" has entered the vocabulary of (particularly) Afro-Caribbean and Asian youth in the UK; although it is used extensively across the board here. For several years it has been used with an almost obligatory bending of the fingers to denote importance. It means "excellent" and all the other synonyms of that word, and is usually pronounced:

"Wickid!"

By chance, I have just published (or am in the last throes of publishing) an e-book in which one of the characters uses the word.

In this case, it is a young Asian boy, Imran, who is impressed by the actions of a colleague.

“He smiled proudly, and said one word: “Wicked!”

Later on in the story, young Imran is told that one of the other characters is a Princess.

“What?” said Imran, incredulously, “Like a Rani? Wicked! That’s well good.”