Dot Wordsworth

Mind your language | 27 November 2010

The big news screen at Victoria Station said, ‘Colin Farrell to play British bad boy.’

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The big news screen at Victoria Station said, ‘Colin Farrell to play British bad boy.’

In 2004 the headlines were, ‘Colin Farrell to play bad boy in US TV drama.’ Earlier this year he was apparently ‘retiring his bad-boy ways’. The big news screen at Victoria Station said, ‘Colin Farrell to play British bad boy.’ In 2004 the headlines were, ‘Colin Farrell to play bad boy in US TV drama.’ Earlier this year he was apparently ‘retiring his bad-boy ways’. Why is a bad boy worth millions at the box office, when a bad father, a bad lover or a bad bet are as off-putting as cold burnt porridge?

The image may have been much overdone in the past few years, but I discover it has been around longer than I suspected. The earliest example comes from 150 years ago, from the New York Times for 9 March 1860. See whether you think it was meant in an approving sense, or more as a synonym for baddies or outlaws: ‘We of New York who do duty so constantly in the British Press as the model “bad boys” of Christendom.’

By 1945, when the avant-garde American composer George Antheil (1900–1959) gave the title Bad Boy of Music to his autobiography, it was clearly a sobriquet that commanded admiration. The bohemian bad boy package suited rock musicians and film actors: drink, drugs, women and perhaps fisticuffs. Cowardice, miserliness, backbiting and taking candy from toddlers would not qualify anyone for the term.

Bad boys benefited from the sort of status accorded to outlaws, from Robin Hood to the boy indeed, William Brown, and his gang. No wonder that, in a film from 1970, Mick Jagger played Ned Kelly, who in life had looked more like Charles Stewart Parnell. Now that gangsta rap is a dominant music genre it may be pleonastic to speak of ‘the bad boy of gangsta rap’.

But black American slang from the 1960s onwards extended bad boy to things, as well as people, that were very effective or impressive, such as fast cars. Even in this sense, bad boy cannot be used interchangeably with cat’s whiskers, bee’s knees, flea’s eyebrows, canary’s tusks (whatever they are) and more recently dog’s ballocks. Cat’s whiskers is used predicatively — ‘This sure is the cat’s whiskers.’ Bad boy is used as a substitute for the item named, as a sort of pronoun: ‘the bad boy’, ‘this bad boy’. Such distinctions may trouble learners of English as a second language. More likely they will be among the first idioms they pick up.