This isn’t “radical,” as in politically provocative, but rather, cooler than cool.
To quote from the entry in the Urban Dictionary, “rad” is “an abbreviation of ‘radical’ — a term made popular by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Still primarily used by people on the West Coast who find words like ‘cool’, ‘awesome’, and ‘tight’ to be tired and overused; ‘rad’ is generally considered to be a much higher praise than the aforementioned superlatives.”
Well, err, how did we get from “radical” to “rad”?
My friend and fellow Ph.D. student Miles Coleman, who happens to be from California (and a surfer), suggested that we attempt to figure that out. Miles claims that the word means to “be extremely awesome in the waves.” And he’s right.
But first, from the top, beginning with the word “radical” itself: the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says that the original word comes from the classical Latin “rādīc” (or “rādīx”), referring to the “root of a plant,” especially the “root of a plant used in a medicinal preparation” (it is the root of “radish,” too). It can also refer to the “root of a word.”
“Radical” shows up in English from the post-classical Latin “radicalis” as early as the fourteenth century, and the OED adds that it was originally associated with the medieval concept of a “moisture once thought to be present in all living organisms as a necessary condition of their vitality.”
Change that was “radical” went right to the root of a problem, or so the thought went. By the 1600s, only “radical” treatments in the medicine of the era were considered completely curative, since they went down to the cause, hence a “radical cure.” The word acquired a more expansive meaning over time, and picked up a French-inspired political insinuation by the end of the eighteenth century.
“Radical reform” was anything involving “far-teaching political or social reform;” basically, solutions that got to the bottom of a problem. The OED says that it became linked to the fringe elements of the British Liberal Party and then the American Republican Party (with the latter wanting harsher measures directed against the rebellious South during and after the Civil War).
The first shortened “rads” — used to refer to political radicals — showed up in the 1820s, in both Britain and the United States., which is about when any advocates of radical politics were called “radicals” for the first time.
But the really “rad” rads that we’re interested in are a product of 1960s surfing culture, and are used by surfers to refer to extreme conditions, as demonstrated by the word’s first written reference in Surfing Life, published in 1964. It was eventually picked up by non-surfers, and popularized in cartoons and even by such higher-brow authors as Salman Rushdie in the 1980s.
How and when it became shortened is a bit of a mystery. But I suspect that the slangish elements that drove the word forward into the 1990s and into the broader culture also lead to its truncation, similar to what happened with “ridic” (an abbreviation of “ridiculous”).
Rad, is it not?
If you have any word ideas or questions, please send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and until next time, take care!
Reach opinion columnist Will Mari at email@example.com.
Please read our Comment policy.