OK, who said it? Who do you associate bodacious with?
Let me guess. Snuffy Smith, perhaps, or his wife Loweezy, from the cartoon strip Barney Google and Snuffy Smith?
No? How about the bull Bodacious, considered the most dangerous rodeo bull in the world, retired in his prime lest he maim too many riders?
No? Hmm, let’s see…
Bill and Ted, played by Alex Winters and Keanu Reeves?
Some words really do acquire a strong association with one specific person, place, or work. Strong? Bold. Bold? Audacious. Bold and audacious? Bodacious.
Yes, that’s where this word is thought to come from: bold plus audacious. And its first known published uses – back in the mid-1800s – are not inevitably positive in tone: it modified words such as idjit (i.e., idiot), blurt, and (as a bare adverb) unreasonable. And bodaciously could be seen before used up or fast. Even into the middle of the 20th century you could see lines in fiction like “That’s bodacious big talk, boy.”
But it’s too, uh, bodacious a word not to shift toward being a general-purpose strong positive intensifier, a sort of pet word. Like in a story published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1935: “I’m keeping the bodacious score for the day. Got a bet I’ll hear the word a thousand times. If you want a reputation for wit in this lunatic fringe on the shirttail of society , all you’ve got to do is know how to pronounce the word.” And in a 1966 issue of The Leatherneck (the magazine of the US Marine Corps), we get “‘We climbed some ‘bodacious’ hills,’ Sgt Robert Rho puffed, using the company’s favorite expression, ‘bodacious,’ meaning huge or gigantic.”
By that time, it was also well established in use in the cartoon Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, which started in 1919, and in which it was used – is used, in fact, since the strip is still running after 104 years – as a kind of backwoodsy all-purpose term of intense approbation: “Now that thar is one bodacious full moon!” “Snuffy an’ Loweezy are still doin’ bodaciously good after all these years, too!!” And so on.
Which also gives it a kind of, um, low-falutin’ hifalutin-ness. Although its polysyllabic presentation may seem like audacious with a bow on it, its history has established it as less suited to an archduke and more suited to Bo and Luke Duke.
But most people don’t read up on the history and etymology of a word before they use it. Words are known by the company they keep. And I feel confident that Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, when they wrote the script for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in the late 1980s, picked up the earthy associations from literature and cartoons, even if they didn’t know that the word had always been associated with rural southern Americans. Anyway, it just sounds right, you know, dude?
And then it launched into eternity, thoroughly associated (along with the word bogus as an antonym) with a certain kind of high school dude… and perhaps a bit with an actor who, in his subsequent career, has proven quite bodacious indeed.
If you want a good example of how people acquire and think of words, here’s Keanu and Alex discussing the meaning of bodacious:
“On the extreme periphery of outstanding, somewhere between excellent and savory. . . And there’s a mystical quality as well.”
And that’s no bull.