Last week, I emailed Merriam-Webster the following question. Associate Editor Jennifer N. Cislo replied.

Q: “Slick,” as an adjective, seems to have two contradictory meanings:

1. clever in usually a dishonest or deceptive way

2. skillful

Can you clarify? If I tell someone he’s slick, he could rightly construe that as a compliment or an insult, right?

A: You are correct: a statement like that could be construed in either of two ways, as a compliment or as an insult. In a case like this, it really is the context and the situation that suggests the meaning intended.

That’s the wonder of the English language. While words have literal meanings, a communication can be very nuanced.

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