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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

flip the script

(1990’s | hip-hop | “turn the tables (or tide),” “turn on its head,” “do the unexpected”)

A few years ago, lovely Liz from Queens and myself were discussing candidates for the blog, and I mentioned “flip the script,” an expression I had just become familiar with. We disagreed about its primary meaning, and though now I can’t remember our positions, I understand better why we weren’t in concord. In its early days, the 1990’s, the phrase had a number of connotations. Here are some variations in meaning that I collected, in addition to those gathered above: “abandon what worked in the past,” “leave something behind,” “change the subject,” “look at things from another point of view.” The underlying idea behind the multifarious meanings had to do with making a complete turn. (“Change the subject” is an exception, but such usage remains rare.) Maybe by reversing the outcome of a previous contest, maybe by following a course opposite the one you had followed before, maybe by advocating (or at least recognizing) a moral or political position at odds with your own. Writer Laura Randolph Lancaster offered some helpful synonyms in Ebony magazine, February 2002: “This year I’m going to flip the script. Do a total turnaround. A complete about-face.” Even when the term’s force is less than revolutionary and it lies closer to “do something different,” it implies a marked departure from a previous method or manner.

The earliest uses recorded in LexisNexis come from rap and hip-hop in the early 1990’s. LL Cool J used “flip the script” in an “Inaugural Rap” performed for Bill Clinton in 1993, and the New York Times noted a new song of that name by a group called Big T a few months earlier. Up until 2000 or so, the expression was almost invariably uttered by or of an African-American — athletes, entertainers, professors, you name it. The new millennium brought with it a wider pool of users, as white people of various stripes began to pepper their speech with it in an effort to sound cool. Coincidentally or not, that’s when the outlying meanings got ground away and the generally accepted meaning began to settle down into two or three broad categories (for corroboration and examples, see urbandictionary.com). When you flip the script, you’re getting back at someone by adopting their tactics, or revising a familiar pattern by making a situation turn out the opposite of what everyone expects, or you’re just surprising everyone by breaking a rule or engaging in unaccustomed behavior. Even the more offbeat definitions of “flip the script” hew closely to the idea of turning (at least changing) things around. It’s become popular as a name for social programs that attempt to give poor young people a chance.

Another possible source for “flip the script” is graffiti. A commenter on stackexchange.com defines it as “taking a rival’s tag name and replicating it upside down or backwards. This shows disrespect for your rival and showcases your superior graffiti skills by demonstrating that the rival’s ‘script’ or ‘tag’ is so simple that you can replicate it in any orientation.” And, there’s a book about graffitists called “Flip the Script,” but it wasn’t published until 2013. It’s a good story, but I doubt that’s the origin. The world of graffiti is not dominated by African-Americans in the way that the hip-hop world is (and was), and just about everything points to an African-American origin of this week’s phrase.

I would have guessed that “flip the script” came out of Hollywood, and reviewers of film and theater do use it now and then, usually with the ghost of a wink, implicitly acknowledging that it’s not a native expression. The brevity and built-in rhyme probably made it attractive to rappers, but I despair of finding the first person who used it, and I still can’t find the fabled Hip-Hop Word Count. I would love to burrow into that database. One poster on Urban Dictionary speculates that “flipping the script” is really “swapping the script,” as in two people trading roles in a frequently enacted scene between them. That is a plausible origin story, but it covers only part of the range of meaning occupied by “flip the script” today.

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