For over a decade of speaking (poorly) and listening to Japanese, it seems to me that I have almost exclusively heard the word
えらい in the sense of meaning "admirable".
For example, I'd mention volunteering in Tohoku, and someone might say
えらいね to say "hey, good on you," or something like that. I swear this kind of use of
えらい was the only one I was aware of for years.
Then, recently, I'm reading Tintin and I come across this panel:
Tintin: えらいときに 来あわせちゃった ([I] happened to arrive at a really bad time!)
The context is that he's just arrived in a town where there is a war brewing between some local factions, and people are being conscripted for the army. Tintin fears getting forced into service. A bad time to show up indeed.
That use of
えらい didn't match my expectations, so I looked it up in a dictionary, and to my surprise,
えらい does indeed mean "terrible", as well as "admirable" and "excellent".
So... questions abound:
Is this use of
えらい rare or limited in some way so that the usage that I am familiar is the dominant use? Or is it me who just happens to not have been exposed to the whole spectrum of meanings?
It seems from the dictionary that when used in the positive light there are two kanji,
豪い. I'm guessing the second kanji is more rare, but is there a difference in use or meaning?
Lastly, if the sentence
「えらいときに来あわせちゃった」 were taken out of context and presented completely on its own, is there any way of knowing whether the positive or negative meaning of
えらい was intended?