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Regarding すごい:

  1. What is the right way to spell it?

  2. Is it vulgar, or is it slang like the English "cool"?, or informal or colloquial? Is it archaic?

  3. If it is slang, does it have a non-slang meaning?

  4. If it would be considered too slangy or informal, is すばらしい the right word to use in its place?

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Unless I misheard it, Colonel Muska in Laputa used sugoi a bit, and he turns out to be royalty. I assume royalty don't use slang, but I've neither watched enough anime, or learnt enough Japanese, to know. –  Andrew Grimm Feb 4 '12 at 22:13

5 Answers 5

凄い【すごい】in itself is neither colloquial nor vulgar, even somewhat literary, I believe... if you use it to mean that something is literally terrible/horrible (e.g. some mythological beastie etc.)

The use you are referring to ("cool", "great"...) is very recent by comparison (no more than 20-30 years, definitely colloquial (though not particularly vulgar) and in fact, already a bit dated. It belongs to the same category of words as "super-duper", "rocking" or "jiggy" in English: words appropriated by a generation and more or less quickly thrown away when the next generation of no-good punks comes up. A slightly-more-recent similar word is やばい, which has received a near-identical treatment and appropriation into youngster slang.

Both are now nearing their expiration date and soon threatening to make any grown-up using them in the wrong context, sound like your dad telling you "everything is cool banana, as you kids say nowadays".

When used as slang, most people do not use it in a grammatically correct fashion:

Instead of: すごく高い

People usually say: すごい高い!/すんごい高い etc.

Using すごく where you should, will therefore make you both more acceptable to a semi-formal audience, and a lot less hip to the young crowd...

[slightly off-topic: I remember some jokes in the movie "バブルへGO" centered on its teenage time traveller heroine from 2007, confusing the hell out of 1980s people with her use of すごい and やばい]

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すごい does not always mean cool, nice, or anything positive.

For instance, on the contrary:

  • Very (cold, expensive (=negative))
  • When looking at something repulsive, or too strange. With a descending volume (pronunciation)
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I do not know if 凄い (すごい) is slang or not, so I will skip that part.

The word has an interesting origin. Daijirin explains the original meaning of the word as follows:

心に強い衝撃を受けて、ぞっと身にしみるさまの意が原義。平安時代から見える語で、良い意味でも悪い意味でも用いられた。近代以降、心理的圧迫感を伴わない用法が生じた

I do not think that I can translate this accurately to English, but anyway here is my attempt:

The original meaning is “shocking, causing shivers, and going straight to one’s heart.” The word is observed since the Heian era (794–1185), and was used both in the positive sense and in the negative sense. The usage without the oppressive feeling emerged in the modern era (mid-19th century and onward).

So it is used to mean “terrifying” as in:

  • すごい目つきでにらまれる be glared fiercely
  • すごい絶壁 a scary precipice

“extraordinary beyond imagination”:

  • すごい怪力 extraordinary strength
  • すごい根性 extraordinary spirit/guts

“excellent (to the extent that one gets terrified),” “terrific”:

  • すごい性能の車 a car with an extraordinary performance
  • すごい美人 a very beautiful woman

or to describe that the degree of something attribute is high:

  • デパートはすごい混みようだ The department store is very crowded.

(All the examples were taken from Daijirin, with English translations by me.)

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btw just a quick question, is it common to hear すごい美人? –  Pacerier Jun 13 '11 at 17:10
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@Pacerier: I think so. At least nothing strikes me as strange with the phrase すごい美人. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 13 '11 at 17:20
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@Tsuyoshi: your examples are interesting! But I am curious about your last sentence: you write すごい混みようだ... Is this the expected grammatical form (instead of すごく混みようだ)? To be clear: I am definitely not questioning your grammar ;-) Just wondering if this is standard, as I always thought that the use of すごい instead of すごく was a clear sign of colloquial use (and your examples aren't meant to be colloquial)... –  Dave Jun 13 '11 at 17:22
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@Dave: すごい混みようだ is correct and すごく混みようだ is incorrect. Grammatically, 混みよう is a noun meaning “crowdedness” (the degree to which something / some place is crowded), and therefore we need the form すごい which modifies a noun. The form すごく is an adverbial form, and we cannot use it here. As you said, using すごい as an adverb is very colloquial, but I did not include this colloquial usage in this answer (primarily because I focused on the usages listed in the Daijirin dictionary and this usage was not listed there). –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 13 '11 at 17:29
    
@Tsuyoshi: gotcha! Yes, I had a doubt about the nature of 混みよう at the last minute before posting... thanks for clarifying it! –  Dave Jun 13 '11 at 17:33

I've taught すごい to friends as their first or second word too, it's very useful. I wouldn't say that it means "cool" though, more like "wow!". You can't use it to say "a cool guy". On its own as exclamation it means "cool" (like when you're looking at some great scenery). It's a little informal when used on it's own like that. You can definitely use it in a less informal way, but the meaning there is "very", not "wow!".

昨日はすごく寒かったです。 - It was very cold yesterday.

I think to make it even more formal, you can use 大変

昨日は大変寒かったです。 - It was very cold yesterday

I don't know if the strength of the coldness changes between them. 大変 might sound a little stronger.

The other meanings are "dreadful" and "horrible", or really anything adjective that you want to make stronger: "tasty" -> "delicious" (すごくおいしい), "beautiful" -> "gorgeous" (すごくきれい), "loud" -> "ear-splittingly loud" (すごくうるさい).

For example すごく怖かった - Very frightening.

The slangier examples are すげえ, which is kind of masculine, and すんごい, which adds (even more) emphasis. You can extend the え in すげえ (すげえぇぇぇ) or extend the ん in すんごい for added effect.

Edit I realise that I didn't actually answer the question. Like Mark, I have trouble differentiating between slang and informal and even though I said "slangy" in my original answer, I think that using it to mean "wow!" is just informal, not slangy.

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"taihen" can also be use in VERY formal situations as well in place of sugoi –  Mark Hosang Jun 13 '11 at 14:49
    
i think instead of "cool!" or "wow!", "nice!" would be a better translation for すごい –  Pacerier Jun 13 '11 at 17:09
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For those who like me have trouble with the difference between "slang" and "informal" I've asked the question over on English.SE : english.stackexchange.com/questions/29720/… –  hippietrail Jun 14 '11 at 0:10

I think it is pretty hard to differentiate between slang and informal, but my guess would be that it would be considered informal because it is used across all of Japan AND there is another way to say "sugei" that is definitely slang.

I don't think it would be considered vulgar, as there aren't many words in Japanese that would be considered vulgar.

Sugoi actually has a kanji btw, 「凄い」. You are are also correctly spelling it.

And you are correct that "Subarashii" would be the correct word to use in its place when wanting to be more formal

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does anyone actually write 凄い? –  Pacerier Jun 13 '11 at 17:07
    
I do........... –  istrasci Jun 13 '11 at 18:16

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