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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

peace out

(2000’s | teenagese (African-American) | “I’m heading out,” “see you later,” “so long”)

According to Connie Eble in Slang and Sociability (1996), this expression was “made popular by rap.” The book was published by a university press, so it must be true. I’m inclined to agree, actually. The phrase certainly spread from African-American youth culture, not that that was coterminous with rap culture by any means, but it was a black thing, a city thing. It started to turn up in print in the nineties, mainly in the music press, but didn’t really trickle into mainstream white culture until after 2000. (I recall my hip brother-in-law using it well before then.) It went with a gesture originally, as I recall — a chest thump followed by the two-finger salute.

There’s a mildly interesting discussion of the phrase here. I’ve been meditating on the question of whether “peace out” has specific overtones — any contexts in which it is more likely to appear — or if it’s best thought of simply as a neutral “I’m leaving.” In my inner ear, I hear it in a serious voice, at the end of a portentous statement, or uttered following expressions of militancy or menace. It still means “I’m leaving,” but it also shades toward “amen” or “power to the people” in those cases. What it doesn’t mean is “pax vobiscum,” and I don’t think it ever did.

One on-line authority (we’re all authorities on-line) opines that the origin of the phrase is a combination of “peace” used as a greeting and “out” as in “over and out.” Much as I dislike plausible etymologies, I have a hard time arguing with this one. Occasionally you may see it used as a verb (“I’m peacing out now”), even a transitive verb (according to, it can be used to mean “kill”), but it seems overwhelmingly used as a farewell.


(1990’s | teenagese (African-American) | “tip of the hat,” “nod,” “big hello,” “thank-you”)

Unlike “peace out,” which strikes me as a little menacing sometimes, a shoutout is always favorable. Whether it’s a greeting, an acknowledgment, an allusion, an expression of gratitude, or some combination, it’s always friendly. You never use a shoutout to shout down someone, or to outshout them. The word itself is infectious, with its cute little echo, and the thing itself makes everyone feel good; that’s probably part of the reason the word has become so popular. It still sounds like a word of the young, and anyone over 25 sounds awkward when they use it — not that that stops us — but that will not remain true as the originating generation ages.

The term started to appear in African-American publications some time around 1995. Early in 1988, George Bush had a combative interview with Dan Rather which caused quite a stir (it helped Bush overcome the “wimp factor” that had dogged him for years as his presidential campaign got rolling). Newsweek’s coverage was titled “The Great American Shout-Out.” There it seems to have meant “shouting match.” The title was undoubtedly influenced by the Great American Smoke-Out, already a national event by the mid-80’s. That appears to have been a one-shot, though, unrelated to our common usage today. I can’t resist quoting a columnist for Vibe magazine extending an “army-sarge shout-out” to everyone he had written about in 1996. I guess the idea was that the acknowledgment was especially loud or generous. It’s such vigorous phrasing I wish it had caught on. That’s the only time I saw it, alas.

I’m treating the term as one word although the hyphenated and two-word forms are still often seen. The shift is happening under our feet and is no doubt inevitable. “Shout out” is not often used as a verb, but it can be. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland used it in last Monday’s briefing: “First let me shout out to the State Department interns in the back of the room” (a greeting or welcoming gesture in this case). Maybe that’s just more grown-up cluelessness, but it shows up as a verb often enough to merit notice. Newsday’s Glenn Gamboa used it absolutely transitively in an article on the 12-12-12 benefit concert, citing “Billy Joel’s reworking of ‘New York State of Mind’ to shoutout Breezy Point and Oceanside.” I’m not sure how common such usage has become, but it would surprise me if it doesn’t soon take its place alongside the noun.

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