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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: african-american culture


(2000’s? | African-American | “show off,” “boast”)

You have to get past a lot of other uses of “flex” to get to this week’s expression. Vastly popular as an adjective suggesting mutability (fine old word, that), or the capacity to adjust to different circumstances, or offering several ways to solve a problem. “Flex time” in workplace scheduling dates back to my youth, when employees were given a certain amount of freedom in scheduling their hours through agreed-upon arrangements. “Flex room” (in a house) is common now, meaning a room that can serve different purposes; “flex space” or “flex property” are related terms. “Flexitarian” in discussions of diet evokes something similar. In all of these cases, there is a straightforward line from “flexibility” and the idea of adapting to change or variety. Today’s still rather slangy usage depends on a different meaning that has taken on a life of its own: displaying the biceps by bending and tightening the arms. That sense of flex, related yet divergent, is the direct ancestor of how we use it now.

Both noun and verb, “flex” most often calls up the idea of personal ostentation, of drawing attention to one’s own superiority. It takes an indefinite article but not generally the definite. When you display a diamond ring aggressively, you’re not flexing the ring, you’re just flexing — the verb is intransitive. Hip-hop seems to be the origin; scholars and observers cite many examples from lyrics, even some titles. One site locates the earliest instance in 1992 in Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day.”

How much linguistic evolution is the result of simple misunderstanding? Major’s dictionary of African-American slang defines “flex” as “spunk” or “energy” dating to the 1990’s. Our more recent use took hold after 2000, as far as I can tell. If the term was already current, is it more likely that a new, not particularly related meaning arose independently within a few years, or that confusion of the existing term with the familiar sense of displaying one’s biceps caused the new meaning to form? It is a natural association, recalling cartoon images of a musclebound man flexing his arms as the resulting breeze knocks a nearby weakling backwards. It was easy for the literal meaning to fall away, even as the effort to impress or intimidate stays in place. But would it have happened if “flex,” meaning something different, was not already around?

Such misunderstandings occur in linguistic development when a later generation fails to reckon with semantic change and alters the meaning of a venerable expression by misinterpreting a crucial word. The process is unusually compressed in this case, a matter of a decade or so — in examples such as “beg the question,” “hot mess,” or “ramp up,” the original expressions are centuries old, enough time for some slippage to occur. Well, they say everything moves faster now than it used to. Unfortunately, it’s mostly the decay and decline that move faster, not the onward and upward.

I have grounds for gratitude to my sister, who suggested this week’s expression a while back. Slow Brother strikes again.

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(2000’s | African-American | “cool,” “nice,” “great,” “excellent”)

A rich old word, at least two centuries old. Descended from the Dutch word for “sauce” and related to “dip,” it generally meant gravy or another thick liquid (lubricants, etc.) in the nineteenth century. (That sense, now rare, survives in the practice of calling sundae toppings “dopes.”) I doubt anyone says it any more, but in the South it long denoted Coca-Cola (or other fountain sodas), from the rumor that it contained cocaine. Somewhere around 1900, in a puzzling development, “dope” came to mean information or gossip (as in “latest dope”). Somewhat more understandably, also around 1900, “dope” took on medical uses, as it became popular to refer to drugs licit and illicit (the distinction was less rigid then). The homey term made the exotic and dangerous seem more familiar and acceptable. During the twentieth century, it became an all-purpose word for any illegal drug, most often marijuana or an opiate. From there “dope” merged with another meaning: slow or stupid person; “dopey” still means “stupid” or “out of it.”

Now, for some reason, the culture has adopted from African-American youth the practice of calling anything really awesome “dope.” (See many examples on Urban Dictionary.) Major’s dictionary of African-American slang reports that the usage was current in the eighties among young people; it does not seem to have entered white mainstream print or consciousness until after 2000. Today it is still characteristic mainly of the younger set, but it is creeping into middle-aged mouths and will continue to do so. Already it has shown more staying power than most youth slang, which is usually pretty ephemeral, and it may yet make the roster of long-term vocabulary. Today I saw a t-shirt that said, “God is dope.” At least it didn’t say “Dope is God.”

I wonder why “dope” has held onto the new meaning. (For starters, why an adjective?) The normal purpose of kids’ slang is to confuse adults. The normal way to do that is to take a relatively harmless word and substitute it for whatever you’re trying to conceal. It goes right over the grown-ups’ heads, at least for a while, and then another misleading word comes along. But as late as 2000, “dope” would have had negative associations for many older people — so why turn to it? It does meet the standard of causing confusion, which helps account for its success. Didn’t most of us have to have it explained the first time we heard it? Eighties slogans like “no hope in dope” still ring in my ears, and I would never have guessed “dope” meant “the greatest” unless it was unmistakable from context. The only connection I can imagine runs through potheads admiring a new variety, raving about how good the dope is. “That’s real dope, man” might become “That’s really dope, dude” without too much effort.

My old buddy Charles supplied this week’s expression. It is slangier than the usual subjects, but it’s such a fun word that I couldn’t pass it up. Charles hasn’t steered me wrong yet.

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fist bump

(late 1990’s | journalese (sports))

An athletic gesture par excellence that worked its way down to the masses shortly after 2000, as far as I can determine. The fist bump postdates the high five, though it was known as early as the 1970’s; Philadelphia 76ers guard Fred Carter is often cited as an early practitioner, if not the inventor. But the low five — “slap me five” (which is what I remember from childhood, along with a response my cousin taught me: “here’s your change” accompanied by a slap across the face) — and the high five were more the rule back then. Tiger Woods in 1999 gave the first widely reported fist bump (“first bump”?); in 2008, Barack Obama exchanged one with Michelle that excited widespread comment. Time magazine, in discussing the Obamas’ meeting of the hands, listed other terms for it: “‘power five,’ ‘fist pound,’ ‘knuckle bump,’ ‘Quarter Pounder,’ and ‘dap.'” The fist bump encompasses at least two different gestures. One, which involves the upper and lower edges of the fist, is also known by variations on “hammer” or “pound.” You hit the thumb side of your counterpart’s fist with the pinky side of your own; then the counterpart returns the favor. The more familiar form requires knuckle-to-knuckle contact, with the knuckles up and the fist roughly at shoulder level. In 2020, that is how most people would picture it.

What is the difference between a high five and a fist bump? I don’t mean in the act, I mean in their significance. On the surface, the closed fist is more aggressive than the open hand, so it would appear that a high five is more hail-fellow-well-met, while the fist bump might seem more threatening. I have to say I don’t read them that way at all. To me, a fist bump signals restraint and moderation, while the high five exudes exuberance. Partly that’s because the hands are raised higher for a high five; fists have to stay lower for a fist bump to work. But it is also a necessary corrective to the menace inherent in the fist. One must deliberately hold back so as not to appear to be slugging the other person. It’s fine to smack your hands together hard when they’re open, but when they’re closed? Then you have a fight on your hands.

The complex of gestures represented by handshakes, fist bumps, high fives, etc. is indeed complex. There are at least two more in the penumbra that merit mention. One is the Black Power salute from the sixties: a single fist raised high above the head. I’m not sure it’s a direct ancestor, but it lurks in the background of the less militant fist bump. Another is the chest bump, prized among athletes, in which two people leap into the air and bang their rib cages together. It lacks the self-restraint inherent in the fist bump and outstrips even the high five in enthusiasm. Athletes have the extremely difficult task of playing with the utmost intensity until the instant the whistle blows; then they are expected to turn it off completely. Celebratory rituals soak up adrenaline and act as a safety valve, giving all that excess energy somewhere to go.

Although it probably had nothing to do with the original intent, doctors and do-gooders noted long before the coronavirus craze that a fist bump was more hygienic than a handshake. You may remember that in March 2020 the elbow bump took the stage briefly as an even more hygienic alternative, before the six-foot distancing rule became standard. Now we must look to our sports heroes once again; when play resumes, athletes will no doubt concoct new enactments of congratulation and triumph that dispense with physical contact altogether. And we will adopt some of them. Nowadays, even the most sheltered are no longer nonplussed by high fives and fist bumps. It won’t take long to add new elaborations to our non-verbal vocabulary.

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it’s a thing

(2000’s | celebritese? | “you haven’t heard about this?,” “it’s the latest thing,” “it’s a big deal”)

Oh, that “thing.” How much of a change does this recently fixed phrase really represent? Hasn’t “thing” always been capable of referring to a phenomenon at least temporarily larger than life? Perhaps hard to define, but all-encompassing. The sheer vagueness of “thing” lends it transcendence and gives it a shadowy power that makes itself felt in this week’s expression. We had by 1985 “It’s a thing with me (her, etc.),” meaning a distinctive habit or practice. In the late eighties, a related expression, “it’s a black thing,” took wing. That I believe was the first phrase of that form to sweep the culture. (It was often followed by “you wouldn’t understand,” and that insular quality has always gone with phrases of this type.) Just speculating here, but maybe Wheel of Fortune also had an effect; all those times Pat looked solemnly at the lit-up board and said, “It’s a thing” may have prepared our ears to hear the words in a new way — to refer to that which you must reckon with, know about, or acknowledge if you expect to be taken seriously. An outcropping of the culture, part of the zeitgeist. But normally an activity, institution, or trend must be fairly novel to be referred to as a thing. The steam engine is no longer a thing, or cars, but maybe Teslas are still a thing (maybe not). A certain amount of excitement attaches itself to a thing.

“It’s a thing” is part of several other oft-used phrases, such as “it’s a thing of beauty,” “it’s a thing of the past,” “it’s a thing to do,” not to mention “it’s a thing called . . .” But it is not a shortening of any of them; it springs from different sources. Indeed, it is grander than any of them. The absence of adjectives or any qualifying clause give the phrase license to open onto wider vistas, a wild card of the vocabulary that can stand in for any noun.

“It’s a thing” may be uttered defensively to head off another person’s suggestion that a phenomenon is trivial or unimportant. It does not go with “inanimate”; “thing” in this sense denotes more than any old object or abstraction. And it doesn’t mean “it’s the thing,” though that is closer. “It’s the thing” means “it’s getting attention right now” but suggests that it won’t be next month or next year. But “it’s a thing” carries no implication of permanence either way; maybe it will last, maybe it won’t. You can find examples of the phrase as far back as the 1980’s in LexisNexis, but it hardly shows up before 2000, and not all that much before 2010. I’m not really sure when “it’s a thing” became a thing. It doesn’t seem to have become ubiquitous until fairly recently, but now it appears here to stay.

From German we take the expression “thing in itself” (“Ding an sich”), but here it has twisted subtly to mean something more like “thing all to itself.” When you say of any phenomenon that it’s a thing, you are saying it can be defined and circumscribed, understood on its own terms in relation to other phenomena and able to hold its own. Turns out it’s not so vague after all.

Yet again has lovely Liz from Queens unearthed and breathed life into an expression buried in my raw list. When lovely Liz speaks, people listen. If they’re smart.

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got you covered

(1980’s | athletese? | “backing you up,” “helping you out,” “taking care of you”)

got your back

(1980’s | athletese | “looking after you,” “watching your back,” “behind you”)

Odd thing about these two expressions. They don’t, or didn’t, mean the same thing, but there’s no reason they couldn’t, and they appear to be growing together. (Sometimes you even see “got your back covered.”) They arose in their latter-day definitions around the same time — “got you covered” a few years earlier, according to LexisNexis — and they both have rather unsettling antecedents. “Got you covered” was something police officers shouted when they had their guns drawn, and it followed “Don’t move” or “Put your hands up.” That use was out there at least as early as those listed above, if not earlier; it has developed a friendlier side. “Got your back” was once more often than not followed by “against the wall,” or perhaps “to the onrushing train (or whatever),” that is, in some kind of danger. Shorn of the prepositional phrase, it means the opposite: guard someone’s blind spot, or more generally keep them safe from harm. Both expressions seem to have taken root in athletese first, particularly “got your back,” which as far as I can tell was used mainly by African-Americans in the nineties.

The two expressions threaten to merge when they have both pivoted as far as they can from their risky cognates. “I’ve got you covered” can mean “I’m protecting you.” But it is used more in a jocular vein, not as a matter of life and death but as a matter of offering more choices to the customer than one’s rivals. It’s a matter of being all things to all people. “Got your back” traditionally carries higher stakes. At least in its youth it was not said lightly. It’s what a bodyguard says; it suggests a real threat. It is often used as an assertion of mutual loyalty, reminiscent of the older expression “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” (Definitely not “got your back up,” which meant irritated or offended.) But it doesn’t have to; no reciprocity is required.

More and more in everyday use, “got you covered” and “got your back” are becoming interchangeable, although the process is not complete and the two phrases retain separate identities. Most commonly, “got your back” is used to mean “got you covered”: I’m here to help rather than “I’ll protect you.” The misunderstanding may occur during discussions of holiday gift-giving, for example, coinciding with the way “got you covered” is used by purveyors of goods and services. Without evidence, I suggest that the blurred distinction stems more from carelessness than from anything else. Yet why shouldn’t they merge? “Got you covered” sounds like something an insurance company would say (it was an Allstate slogan in the late seventies), and what does an insurance company do if not protect you against bad luck and disaster? Why couldn’t the adjuster have your back as well as having you covered? Two similar expressions, born around the same time and in the same place, gradually coming to be used in the same way despite the original distinction. We owe the confluence of the two expressions to consumerism rampant; “got you covered” went over to the dark side long ago, and “got your back” has become a good example of merchandese.) One wonders if there will be any distinction left within a generation.

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talk smack

(1990’s | athletese | “throw or trade insults,” “banter”)

throw shade

(2010’s | celebritese? | “cut,” “belittle”)

Years ago, RuPaul tweeted, “Throwing shade takes a bit of creativity, being a bitch takes none.” I wouldn’t say that sums up the difference between “talk smack” and “throw shade,” but talking smack is much the less refined, devoid of the elegance required to throw shade. Yet both expressions take a decidedly derogatory aspect and are understood as elaborations on the insult, or diss, which ought to have a blog entry or two of its own.

“Talk smack” is older; it came along about the same time as “trash talk” but took a bit longer to get settled. (Also an athlete’s expression, by the way, but politicians and others use it happily.) It has not acquired a wide range of definitions, though it does come in a range of flavors, from playful to quite serious. “Smack talk” is the noun form; the verb phrase usually takes “on,” “about,” or no preposition at all, and the object is usually a person or small group. Now and then you’ll see it used as a rough equivalent of “play the dozens.” In whatever part of speech, the phrase probably arose from African-American youth culture. Major’s African-American slang dictionary (1994 edition) defines “smack,” among other things, as “flirtatious talk, ‘nonsense’ talk.” Not a precise synonym, but it seems distinctly related and does require talking, which Major’s other four definitions do not. The fact that “talk smack” was popular among wrestlers and their fans made me wonder if there’s a primal connection with “smackdown,” but now I’m inclined to doubt it.

Many of the characteristics of “talk smack” go with “throw shade” as well, but as noted above, they are still used in different settings. In a piece titled “Celebrity Slang,” Huffington Post defined “throw shade” thus: “To insult someone, especially in a haughty or condescending manner.” In practice, smack talk often conveys the express or implied sentiment that the target is inferior, but that’s not essential, and peers talk smack to each other. When you throw shade, you are taking the mantle of superiority, social or otherwise. You can find examples here and there before 2000, but this phrase did not come into its own until well into the new millennium (as I recall, I harvested it a few years ago from one of the family teenagers). It still sounds kind of fresh and up-to-date and may even be glossed occasionally. Its prepositions are “on” and “at,” possibly “towards.” Literally, “throw shade” is what trees do when they are in full foliage, and our expression’s origin most likely springs from that, related to the notions of overshadowing or looking down on. To “put someone in the shade” (sounds a little archaic now, doesn’t it?) meant to make their efforts or achievements seem puny, towering over them (metaphorically) so much as to block out the sun. “Shade” is one of those words that has pleasing associations in its literal sense, but gets underhanded in the figurative.

“Throw shade,” like “talk smack,” has a cooler and hotter temperature, running from “bring down a peg” to “sneer at.” It can also mean “cast doubt on,” which is still unusual but may make itself felt as an accepted definition in the next decade or two. “Talk smack” remains a bruiser of a phrase, at least for now, relying on brute force rather than la-di-dah pretension. “Smack” is a noisy word, after all, that descends easily into violence. No subtlety required.

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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 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 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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you go, girl

(1990’s | feminese (African-American) | “I love it!,” “be strong,” “do your own thing”)

This expression has punch and verve, a bit of alliteration, and even a certain amount of colloquial charm. And it has a distinctly modern sound; it’s impossible to imagine suffragettes saying it to each other, or even sixties feminists. Partly that comes from the insouciant use of “girl.” (I can imagine a sixties feminist saying “You go, sister,” but I don’t think any actually did.) Enlightened women didn’t address each other that way when men called women girls with impunity. Somewhere in there — “you go, girl” seems to date from the late eighties or early nineties; I found no examples in LexisNexis before 1990 — women grabbed hold of the demeaning, infantilizing epithet and made it a term of empowerment. The more I write this blog, the more I realize how essential such appropriation, nay, co-opting (as we used to say in the ol’ English department) is to the development of our language. I’m not enough of a historian to judge how long oppressed minorities have been turning insults into badges of honor, but since World War II it has developed into an industry.

It wasn’t just women who brought “You go, girl” into the language, it was African-American women. (One of the first uses I saw in print came from BPI Entertainment Wire, April 1994, citing hip-hop duo Tag Team’s new song “U Go Girl” and crediting them with “taking ‘Whoomp! (There It Is)’ from street slang into the mainstream.”) At that time, the simpler “Go, girl” turned up about as frequently, though it seemed to be used much more by white women, not that my sample size is large enough to be reliable. (By now, white women have adopted “you go, girl,” so there is no longer even the appearance of a racial divide.) Adding “you” makes for increased emphasis or ebullience. My memory suggests that “you go” unadorned preceded either girl-phrase, but I’m not really sure; maybe the non-gender-specific formulation actually came later. (There was an imported Eastern-bloc car, too — anybody remember?) There’s no class bias; you can say it to your workout partner at the gym or to the First Lady and it won’t be out of place.

The phrase is all about encouragement and solidarity; to date it has not developed much of an ironic side. The implication is that the woman in question is up to something unconventional, difficult, or maybe just healthy, but anyway, worth applauding. That is still predominantly true, even if derring-do is no longer necessary. “Way to go, girl” also turns up occasionally, but “way to go” was old when I was a boy and seems to have been slowly receding from our everyday vocabulary since.

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(1990’s | journalese (arts))

It may surprise you to learn that there are some who don’t like hipsters. The concept seems too familiar to require summary, but I encourage everyone to spend an hour Googling “hipster definition” or something similar. Once you see through the fog of animus, you encounter amazingly precise definitions of the term, with detailed and occasionally exquisite catalogues of preferences in fashion, the arts, diet, transportation, grooming, and who knows what all else. Oh, and then there’s the attitude, thoroughly annoying to upstanding citizens everywhere. Pretentious. Hypocritical. Self-righteous. Suckers for fads. Even card-carrying hipsters deny membership in the group; that too is an oft-cited trait of hipsterism, one of the odder ones, it seems to me. There must be some hipster out there who will own up, for Pete’s sake. Diogenes, get busy and start searching for an honest hipster. (In our day, that would be a reality show, and it probably wouldn’t last a season.)

Now “hipster” goes back at least to the 1940’s, when it was a straightforward variation on “hip” or “hip (hep) cat.” Back then, “hipster” was a compliment, used mostly within a particular, and fairly small, subculture. The word was applied to devotees of the latest jazz, or more generally the language, habits, and attitude that went with it. By the mid-1950’s, it was a synonym for “beatnik”; Norman Mailer used it to talk about white people who wanted to be black (which was thought to be the same as being hip). The emphasis fell on expert knowledge and awareness of your cultural surroundings, but anyone considered to be in the know or up to date rated the term. And with that went “cool” and other affectations: avoidance of strong emotion or expression, lack of interest in the world outside the club, etc. Does any of that sound familiar? The connoisseurship, the detachment, the lassitude, the obsessions? “Hipster” was overtaken by “hippie” in the 1960’s, which drove every other derivative of “hip” out of the language for twenty years. (It lives on today as an insult, which is what it was in the first place. “Hippie” is another example of a derogatory term adopted and embraced by its target.) When “hipster” jostled its way back into common speech, it brought quite a bit of its former meaning with it.

At least up until the mid-1980’s, one encountered “hipster” generally in articles about jazz musicians of a previous generation. It’s not clear to me when the changeover happened, but as early as the late 1980’s, I found some citations that made me suspect that today’s meaning was in play by then. But nothing really unambiguous until the early 1990’s. By 1995 the word was used as we use it now, though not universally. It went along with the rise of luxury coffee and Quentin Tarantino. And in those halcyon days the word often had a nostalgic tinge, a sense of rediscovering a hipper past. That shading seems to be gone. Another change: “Hipster” now almost always carries opprobrium, which was not true when it was an in-group term sixty, or even thirty, years ago. Is it just because hipsters are more obnoxious than they were back then? Maybe they’re just more ubiquitous; so much ink has been spilled over the phenomenon that everyone got tired of it (including the hipsters themselves), and ennui became the only possible response. Urban Dictionary affords over 500 definitions, and the web abounds with takedowns of hipsterism. One clever deconstruction from Adbusters (2008) suffers only slightly from the rather feverish suggestion that the hipsters will be the ones to bring down Western civilization once and for all.

One thing generally associated with hipsters all along is youth, or at least the ability to fake it. When do you cross the boundary and get too old to be a hipster? You wake up one morning and the wrinkles are just a little too deep. OMG! We have to move to the suburbs! Briefcases and bow ties for everyone! You probably have to stop wearing tight jeans and cycling when you turn into a hipster emeritus, but let us hope the poor dears can hang onto their obscure bands and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. The sense of superiority will be the last thing to go.

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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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