In “The Age of Reason,” Thomas Paine wrote, “The sublime and the ridiculous are often so nearly related, that it is difficult to class them separately. One step above the sublime makes the ridiculous, and one step above the ridiculous makes the sublime again.”
More than two centuries later, the sublime and the ridiculous are more difficult to distinguish than ever. In fact, the ridiculous very often is the sublime.
If Paine were to time-travel to the present day, he’d find that the word ridiculous now frequently takes on the transcendent qualities that used to be associated with sublime. Someone or something described as ridiculous may very well deserve our deep admiration rather than our mockery.
Turn on ESPN and you’ll hear ridiculous used as the highest form of praise by athletes, coaches, and commentators. When Oklahoma State basketball coach Travis Ford said that an expanded Big 12 would be “just a ridiculous, ridiculous basketball league,” he meant it would be supremely, unbelievably good. And when Kobe Bryant was asked about a hand-switching dunk shot by Lakers teammate Shannon Brown earlier this year, he marveled, “I give it a 10, no question. It was just ridiculous.”
Advertisers are getting into the ridiculous game, too. Stride Gum calls itself “ridiculously long-lasting,” and 7UP is “ridiculously bubbly.” In a surreal new ad campaign, Dairy Queen has made the term its own by inserting its initials: “So Good It’s RiDQulous.”
How did ridiculous become an all-purpose exaltation? It’s not like we’ve lost our ability to ridicule, with jeers replaced by anodyne cheers. Far from it: Pop culture is snarkier than ever.
The word first flip-flopped from negative to positive in the late 1950s, cropping up in jazz circles. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the usage back to 1959 (“His technique is ridiculous!”) and quotes the 1960 book “The Jazz Word” as saying, “To a jazzman...ridiculous is wonderful.” A 1955 interview with Dave Brubeck in the oral history “Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya” may offer a clue to how being ridiculous became respected in the jazz world. Brubeck describes how a jazz combo can begin with an arrangement and then have soloists freely improvise, before “going out” with the arrangement again. “And when we’re playing well,” Brubeck explains, “the out parts are ridiculous, usually, because the inner parts have come up to the level where you’re truly improvising.”
Free-form jazz improvisation in the postwar bebop era must have seemed truly ridiculous to the noncognoscenti, but those who “dug it” knew there was beauty to the madness. Jazz slang of the time often equated improvisational skill with foolishness: An inspired musician was crazy, real gone, outrageous. As Jonathan Lighter, editor of “The Historical Dictionary of American Slang,” recently suggested on the American Dialect Society mailing list, “the psychological trigger for laudatory ridiculous may be that something is so astonishingly good, that if anybody had described it beforehand, the normal, well-ordered mind would have scoffed.”
Thus what is ridiculous from the perspective of buttoned-down squares could be highly prized for its sheer audacity. In pop music, that tradition continues to present-day lyricizing. Kanye West repeatedly uses ridiculous in his 2010 song “So Appalled” to describe aspects of his over-the-top lifestyle, like “five-star dishes, different exotic fishes.” On the track, he is joined by fellow rapper Swizz Beatz, who pronounces the word as “ri-dic-a-lis.”
Playing with the pronunciation (and spelling) of ridiculous is in fact a popular pastime. Long before Dairy Queen branded the word as riDQulous, many other whimsically emphatic variations caught on. Most prominent is ridonkulous (also spelled ridonculous, redonkulous, redonculous, and so forth), tracked by the lexicographer Grant Barrett on his Double-Tongued website all the way back to 1998. Ridonkulous makes frequent appearances on the student slang lists compiled by Connie Eble, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina. Another variant from Eble’s students is ridankulous, a blend of ridiculous and dank, defined as “extremely impressive.” And something that is outrageously dorky would, naturally enough, be described as ridorkulous.
The incessant attempts by slang-slingers to come up with playfully mangled versions of ridiculous is perhaps a sign that the original word has lost some of its power and is in need of a special boost. Just about anything can get called ridiculous these days, it seems. But this type of semantic inflation often afflicts colloquial expressions of approval. Robert Lane Greene, a correspondent for The Economist, recently noted the same devaluation of the word awesome, which by the early 1980s “became the default descriptor for anything good.”
Such is the fate of slang terms that stick around for too long. But for every awesome, cool, or crazy, there are dozens of approving words that never get passed down for later generations to dilute. Think of razzmatazz and red-hot from jazz hepcats, gear and fab from Beatlemaniacs, fly and fresh from old-school hiphoppers, or rad and tubular from surfers and Valley girls. Most ways to say “excellent” in a particular subculture never make the leap to the mainstream. That’s why the ascension of ridiculous is so slangily sublime.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com and the former On Language columnist for The New York Times Magazine.