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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

keep it real

(1990’s | journalese (hip-hop) | “don’t get above yourself,” “don’t forget your roots,” “trust your instincts”)

The origins of this expression are not in doubt. Like “shoutout,” it arose among hip-hop artists (or rappers, as non-initiates called them then) in the mid-1990’s. It is easy to understand but hard to define. Or rather, it is hard to stop defining; the expression never had a very restrictive field and has become quite versatile. But in the earliest days it most often had a personal angle: remembering where you came from — and a social angle: not letting fame and fortune distract you from the causes you’re fighting for. In 1996, according to a New York Times article, “keep it real” meant “don’t lose your edge or your anger. . . . don’t forget your ‘homies,’ the friends you grew up with and who haven’t made it.” Three years earlier, Dr. Dre had offered a gentler definition: “just being yourself, staying true to yourself and doing what you like.” Less of a social angle there, but his definition has the quality of being broad and narrow, general and particular, that this expression has always borne. It can imply sincere, unaffected, down-to-earth, unaltered (as in hair or body parts), uninfluenced by social pressure, willing to say unpopular things, brutally honest. There are many types of authenticity. Another facet of the expression is a tacit injunction to remain part of your particular minority rather than adopting a version of majority culture, as the Times definition implies.

White people use this expression quite a bit more than they did twenty years ago, but to me it still feels coded black — that is, when white people utter it, they are deliberately using a phrase they regard as characteristic of African-Americans. Along with that goes a patronizing quality, a subtle but unmistakable acknowledgment of linguistic slumming from a position of superiority. The undertones can be quite noticeable and are almost always present. When the utterance is accompanied by some white guy’s attempt at a rapper’s hand gesture, the condescension becomes overt.

living the dream

(1980’s | journalese | “making it big,” “making the grade,” “getting ahead”)

The springboard for this expression, which at first appears but an insignificant variant of “live one’s dream” (it was also customary to say “live out one’s dream”), very likely was the push for a national holiday marking Martin Luther King’s birthday in the mid-1980’s. Before that, the exact wording was unusual; the possessive pronoun or possibly “that” were the norm. In 1985, King’s widow urged us on toward “living the dream”: creating in America the ideals King laid out in his most famous speech. (Ted Kennedy a few months earlier had used the phrase “living the dream of Martin Luther King,” it still being necessary to specify which dream he meant). The exact phrase became much more common once the federal holiday was established, appearing often in mottoes and titles. King’s dream was more substantial than most, imbuing the word with the breadth of vision necessary to change society at the roots rather than simply making a better life for oneself. “Dream” also functions as an adjective, as in “dream vacation”; some of that sense of wonder survives in this week’s expression, which is never more than faintly ironic; it’s congratulatory, not derogatory. It could mean “living in a fantasy world,” but it never does, as far as I can tell. (That would be “living (in) a dream,” I guess.)

I don’t discern a connection between “living the dream” and the American dream. King’s dream was only incidentally a matter of material comfort and respectability, so maybe that isn’t surprising. It seems that any expression incorporating “the dream” ought to refer to the American dream by default, but in this case apparently it never did. “Living the dream” demands a different kind of ambition. There’s doing what you always wanted to do and doing what everybody always wanted to do. Living your dream involves the former; living the dream involves the latter. That is the change brought about by the shift in wording. You might live your dream by becoming dogcatcher, but you are not living THE dream, because most of us don’t share that goal. “Living the dream” comes up often in stories about our dream factories — professional sports, the music industry, Hollywood — because lots and lots of people want to be LeBron James or Beyoncé. To live the dream, you don’t have to be successful, but you do have to represent a group — all the people who wish they could be you, or at least live the life you’re leading. It would be tone-deaf for a high-powered star to say openly that she is standing in for millions of people who want to be in her shoes, but celebrities must endure not only stalkers and paparazzi, but all the harmless people who just want to be them.

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