breaking bad

The popular U. S. television show Breaking Bad (2008–13) is about a high-school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque who, after being diagnosed with lung cancer and with the assistance of an ex-student turned failed drug dealer, begins to cook and sell crystal meth. While the show has been popular with both audiences and critics, the title has baffled many. What does breaking bad mean? Where does the phrase come from?

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The answers to these questions are not surprising, but digging the answer out of reference books is somewhat difficult, because for most of its life to break bad was not a catchphrase, but simply a normal verb phrase, consisting of a verb coupled with a variety of adjectives. One could break bad, but one could also break good, or break lucky, or break better, etc. It wasn’t until the 1960s that to break bad developed into a fixed phrase, with a sense of to become angry or belligerent, in African-American slang.

In U. S. slang the verb to break can have the meaning of to happen, to develop along a certain course or trajectory, and it seems to have made its appearance, like many American slang terms, in baseball. The Oxford English Dictionary records this sense, with a first citation from the 15 August 1914 Saturday Evening Post:

They say my homer was lucky [...] but, believe me, it was time things broke for me. They been breakin’ for him all his life.

Baseball use of the term, however, is older than this. The use of the verb to describe a pitch that deviates from the straight course of a normal fastball dates to at least 1899, when it is used by The Chicago Daily News on 8 October:

Katoll is spoken of as the possessor of a sizzling curve that comes up with a phenomenal burst of speed and breaks lightning fast.

And The Sporting Life of 13 May 1905 has this description of a spitball:

The deceptive feature of this delivery is the fact that it is nothing but a straight ball until just as the batter swings at it, then “breaks” sharply.

The noun phrase breaking ball to denote such a pitch is quite common.

But baseball is not the starting point for this use of the verb; cricket is. In 1884 famed cricketer W. G. Grace writes in The Pall Mall Gazette:

He says that a fast bowler can “break” both ways, but admits that this cannot be done with precision.

Almost simultaneously with the verb’s appearance in baseball, it broke into general slang as well, and we find the first instance of broke bad that same year. Again from The Saturday Evening Post, this time from a 1905 article about baseball, the writer uses the verb more generally:

He knows things are liable to “break wrong” for him some time and that he will be the object of criticism [...] Things broke bad, didn’t they?

Early uses like this tend to come in baseball contexts, although cartoonist H. C. Fisher in 1907 writes about his character A. Mutt (who the following year would be joined by his partner Jeff):

Showing here how tough things broke for A. Mutt yesterday.

The 1928 You Gotta Be Rough: The Adventures of Detective Fiaschetti of the Italian Squad has:

Things weren’t breaking right, and he was broke.

Carroll and Garrett Graham’s 1930 Queer People has:

Everything broke lucky for her.

Even William Faulkner uses the verb in this fashion, in his 1934 novel Pylon:

If things break right today, I’ll get you a bottle.

Such examples of the verb to break paired with various adjectives can be found right up to the present day. But the use of break bad as a fixed phrase isn’t recorded until the 1960s, when it starts appearing in African-American slang with the sense of to become aggressive or angry. Claude Brown’s 1965 novel Manchild in the Promised Land has:

Down home, when they went to town, all the niggers would just break bad, so it seemed.

And the New York Times has this from its 30 September 1992 issue:

I don’t want to make eye contact with this sucker because he may break bad on me.

The earlier uses of break bad are primarily in the sense of things taking an unfortunate turn, of bad luck. The use of the sense of break bad to mean to turn to criminal or evil acts would appear to be influenced by the African-American sense. It’s a short step from anger and aggression to criminality.

The creator of the TV series, Vince Gilligan, says the phrase was common when he was growing up in Richmond, Virginia in the 1970s and 80s, and there is no reason to doubt his memory or his account of the experiences from which he drew the title. But the term is not a regionalism as has been claimed by many popular press accounts. The usage is widespread and reasonably common. If it seems unusual, it’s probably because it’s so usual that few take notice of it when it appears, and the prominence it is given by being used in the title makes people notice it for the first time.


Sources:

“break,” “breaking ball,” The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, third edition, 2009, 134–35.

“break, v.” “break bad,” Historical Dictionary of American Slang, vol. 1, 1994, 264–65.

“break, v.,” def. 39.c., Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.

“break bad, v.,” Green’s Dictionary of Slang, 2010.

Rothman, Lily, “Breaking Bad: What Does that Phrase Actually Mean?,” Time, 23 September 2013.

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