I've encountered a lot of descriptors for automobiles – bold, agile, powerful, dynamic, sleek, legendary, peppy, energy-efficient – but until recently I'd never seen a car described, approvingly, as ludicrous. Yet that was exactly what the big display said in the Tesla showroom in the Americana shopping center in Glendale, California: Ludicrous performance.
Here's how Merriam-Webster defines ludicrous: "amusing or laughable through obvious absurdity, incongruity, exaggeration, or eccentricity; meriting derisive laughter or scorn as absurdly inept, false, or foolish."
Are those the qualities Tesla means for us to associate with this $68,000-and-up electric vehicle? No, of course not. Something else is going on here – the same something that has given us the Scottish confection company Ludicrously Good, the Dutch chocolate brand Ridiculously Good, the Kozy Shack tagline "Absurdly Delicious," and many other incongruous public displays of amusement. I set out to find out what that something is.
Ludicrous, ridiculous, absurd, and their adverbial counterparts have obvious commonalities. All three words have Latin roots; all three entered English between the 1540s and the 1610s; all three share a connection to laughter. Ludicrous, from Latin ludere, "to play," acquired secondary meanings of "foolish," "incongruous," and "laughable" that later became primary. (The rapper known as Ludacris, born Christopher Brian Bridges, punned on ludicrous to create his performance name.) Ridiculous comes from Latin ridere, "to laugh"; the root also gives us ridicule, derisive, and risible. Absurd – from Latin absurdus, meaning "out of tune" or "discordant" – in English signified "illogical" or "incongruous"; by the early 18th century it meant "causing amusement or derision." In the 20th century, absurdism was adopted as the name of a literary genre and a philosophical school of thought.
On the language-of-humor scale, where funny, droll, and amusing are positive or neutral, ludicrous, ridiculous, and absurd have traditionally skewed negative: You might say yes to an amusing hat, but not a ridiculous one. And yet here we are in Branding Land, circa 2017, where disparaging modifiers such as ridiculous are paired with positive words like delicious and attached to messages intended to persuade and sell, such as "Ridiculously Tasty Beer" (for Full Sail brewery), "Ludicrous Small Batch" (for the new Seven Caves Spirits distillery), and "Absurdly Fresh Groceries" (Good Eggs grocery-delivery service).
One source for this semantic shift may be the language of sports, where, as language maven Ben Yagoda told me via Twitter, sportscasters have evinced a "recent fondness for calling a great play 'ridiculous'" (or even, sometimes, "stupid"). I don't follow sports closely enough to have noticed this trend, so I looked it up. In short order I discovered "One of the most ridiculous [read: excellent] plays of the 2017 season" (SB Nation), "Manny Machado Made a Ridiculous [read: impressive] Play Yesterday" (NBC Sports), "a ridiculously [read: outstandingly] good closer" (Business Insider, on Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Kenley Jansen), and "ridiculously [read: extremely] fast" (in a 2007 book about baseball). I also found plenty of stupidly intensifiers, and not only in sportswriting: "stupidly fiery" hot peppers, "Stupidly Simple Snacks" (a cooking show), "The Stupidly Simple Way to Stop Bombing on Your Goals," and many more.
It's as though the writer or speaker wants to convey a degree of excellence, simplicity, or speed that surpasses the normal limits and leaves the beholder laughing in delight or shaking his or her head in stupefaction.
That's one theory. For another, consider the Zoolander Factor.
Zoolander, you may recall, is the 2001 comedy directed by and starring Ben Stiller as Derek Zoolander, an "intellectually challenged but bone structure-blessed male model" (as Rotten Tomatoes puts it). Derek Zoolander tells an interviewer that he first realized he could be a model when, as a child, he caught sight of his reflection. "Wow, you're ridiculously good looking!" was his reaction. Later, in what passes for a moment of introspection, he observes: "I'm pretty sure there's a lot more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good looking. And I plan on finding out what that is." The repeated line became a popular catchphrase and a social-media meme. When Zoolander 2 was released in 2016, "ridiculously good looking" appeared in many headlines.
The path from Zoolander to sports to branding strikes me as not implausible. But there's one more angle to consider: the case of the curious intensifiers.
The British breath-mint brand Altoids, founded in 1780, has since the 1920s used the slogan "The Original Celebrated Curiously Strong Mints." When the brand began to advertise heavily in the U.S. in the mid-1990s, "curiously strong" was prominently featured.
As an intensifier for strong, “curious” felt, well, curious. And it paved the way for other unexpected intensifiers in advertising and marketing.
A bit of background: Intensifiers are words, especially but not exclusively adverbs, that add force to other words or phrases. The basic intensifier is very; other common intensifiers include absolutely, completely, extremely, highly, really, so, too, and totally.
Intensifiers are flexible: Awfully, for example, for several centuries meant "so as to convey terror or awe" before it slipped into use, in the early 1800s, as a simple intensifier meaning "very" ("She's awfully talented"). Terribly – which originally meant "so as to cause terror" – meant "extremely" as early as 1833. "Ridiculously simple" and "ridiculously easy" have appeared in print since the 19th century, and were, well, ridiculously popular in the 1920s and 1930s, according to Google's NGram Viewer. Insanely may mean "in a deranged manner," but it may also mean "immoderately" or "extremely," as in a favorite expression of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs: "Insanely great!" (Insanely Great was repurposed as the title of a 1994 book about the Apple Macintosh.)
Intensifiers have diverse origins: Hella originated in the San Francisco Bay Area and is now widespread. Wicked was originally used in New England but is familiar throughout the U.S. Mad – as in Mad Hot Ballroom, a 2005 documentary – is a clipping of madly that was first heard, in the late 1960s or early 1970s, among African-American speakers. Fully – common in Australian English as a synonym for "totally," as in "I'm fully sick of that nonsense" – has been making intensifier inroads into American and British English, as Ben Yagoda has noted in his Britishisms blog.
As for the recent proliferation of synonym-for-funny intensifiers, the explanation may come down to this: Advertisers, like the rest of us, are constantly seeking the next new thing. So when one intensifier – such as totally or awesomely – begins to sound stale, they search for a fresh replacement. Ridiculously, absurdly, and ludicrously – may at first seem unsettling and inappropriate in an ad, a company name, or a slogan. But given time and repeated exposure, we can count on their shifting from really, really ridiculous to really, really ridiculously appealing. Curious, isn't it?