Something Wicked: The Story of an Adverb

Chances are, you first met the word sinister was in a fairy tale. Evil seems to be an epidemic in children’s literature. Cinderella has an evil stepmother; The Queen in Snow White is often referred to as the Evil Queen, and of course, there is the Wicked Witch of the West in Wizard of Ozwhose original story forms the basis of the spinoff novels and musicals sinister.

house of seven gables

House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts. Although some have linked the Salem witch trials with the use of the word ‘evil’ as the strengthening word, the explosion of the word ‘evil’ as an adverb is an end-of-the-world phenomenon. 20th century.

sinister reminds us of witchcraft and magic, and although it appears in almost every Shakespeare play, one of the earliest and most famous uses is, appropriately, said by a witch:

By my thumb Something wicked comes this way William Shakespeare, Macbeth1606

A twist of Middle English wick, sinister retain the last syllable we hear in other –ed word ending, like Happy And accursedand that we don’t hear words that sound like they should rhyme sinisteralike smooth or select.

Adjectives can have many different meanings such as “moral evil” (as in witches and stepmothers), “violent or cruel” (a. sinister dog), “smell or unpleasant” (a sinister stench), or “potentially harmful or distressing” (a sinister storm).

When used to mean “evil,” sinister sometimes comes with a meaning of being smart and clever:

“What could get you involved in a
sinister conspiracy?” asked Mr. Granville, surprised.

“The temptation is very strong – I want to make my son rich. Besides, I hate Philip.”

“It’s your good sinister the plan was defeated; it could have ruined my happiness forever.” Horatio Alger, Boy Working; or, How Phil Brent Achieved Success1888

Where there is a lot of sunlight, I think the people must be very nice. it only sinister people who like the dark. And sinister I think everything is always done and planned in the dark. Maybe that’s also why I hate mysterious things – things that I can’t see, happening in the dark. Frank Norris, The Octopus: The Story of California1901

Another feeling of sinister means “of a special quality or degree.” It often has the connotation of being so impressive or amazing that it is difficult to understand:

Mud Hens has a place on the list, and the scout intends to fill it with the pot that has sinister curve, the name of Earl Grayson. Jerry Spinelli, Maniac mage1990

“What a genius. I’ve seen it all. The hero invites Gridley Quayle, and that patrony donkey, with the help of a series of sinister coincidence, solve the mystery; and here I am, with another month’s work done.” PG Wodehouse, What’s new?1915

This meaning has similarities in words like meancan be stripped of its cruelty in phrases like “make mean cocktails.”

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Adverb sinister can be associated with any of the following senses:

Ike turned to get a glimpse of Rolf’s face, he was grinning sinister at Harald. What an asshole, Ike thought. He was even rude to his own friends. Margo Sorenson, Nothing is free1996

When I offered to buy a second serving, they eagerly showed me how to shred fresh ginger with a grated knife. sinister sharp hand. Shane Mitchell, saviorNovember 2007

Nearly everything about Kate Walbert’s new novel is sinister smart, beginning with the title: “A Short History of Women.” Leah Hager Cohen, New York Times book reviewJune 14, 2009

However, if you live in the Northeast, sinister could mean something completely different to you. Especially in that part of the country, sinister is generally recognized as its own strengthening adverb to mean “to an extreme or dramatic degree”:

“Its sinister competitive,” Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who served on the board of United Airlines and was actively recruiting new airlines for Logan. Scott McCartney, The Wall Street JournalFebruary 27, 2014

“I always wear knee pads and helmets, but the other day I took sinister The incident spread and nearly broke my arm.” Ask Be, Boston GlobeMarch 18, 1997

People at Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM) and the Maine Snowmobile Association received sinister discussed an issue in the state agreement to acquire the spectacular lands around Lake Katahdin and attach them to Baxter Park.
down to the EastDecember 2006

Although this use is not exclusive to the Northeast, it has developed such a strong connection that it permeates descriptions of the region—especially the eastern part of New England—and the culture of the region. of that region. New American Slang Dictionary of Partridge adverb label sinister EQUAL “[a] a rare instance of late C20 American slang persists in the region.”

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So attached to area is the adverb sinisterin fact, its use pervades its descriptions in popular culture. A character from a movie set in Boston Goodwill hunting (1997) said, “My son sinister smart.” wicked local is a network of news publications covering the town of Massachusetts. And the adverb sinister humorously used in many New England-related titles, from Foreign Policy (“John Kerry went crazy when he found Dunkin donuts in Moscow”) buzz feed (“18 Reasons Why Boston Is Terrible”).

Occasionally, the adverb sinister Bleeding across the border into New York:

“They did sinister excited. People are gathering in a group, and people are cheering in the restaurant, and people are looking around, like, what’s going on? that is sinister great.” Carolyn Nichols, quoted in Ithacan people (Ithaca College, NY), April 5, 2017

Hairwoman tells us they took a week off school in the ’70s because of an energy crisis. that is sinister cold and it would cost too much to heat the school. Laurie Halse Anderson, Talk [Set in Syracuse, N.Y.]1999

So how? sinisteran adjective with a hint of old-fashioned moralism, finding a new identity as an adverb intensifier in this part of the country?

One theory is that the fact that the city of Salem, Massachusetts, just north of Boston, was famous for its 1692 witch trials and its association with witches, may have something to do with it.

But while there are some examples dating back to the Middle Ages (Yesterday was… sinister hot day.—Thomas Porter, A witty war1663), the explosion of sinister as an adverb is a late 20th century phenomenon.

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As Ben T. Smith of Dialect Blog notes, the use of sinister as an adverb that repeats the same usage of other adjectives, such as terrible And terrible (e.g. “a terrible cold frost”), as strengthening adverbs were used in the late 19th century.

One possible explanation is the adverb sinister is a literal extension of its adjective meaning—for example, something that runs so wickedly fast that it appears to be the result of a curse or supernatural force.

Some have also drawn parallels between sinister And Damneda booster (as in “that trip is Damned scary”) has origins associated with the Bay Area of ​​California. Although they are used similarly, comparing them would be like comparing wine to clams – or redwoods to maples – and would make people on both shores are nasty, or cruelly annoyed, whatever you like.

Categories: Usage Notes

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