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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: marijuana

dope

(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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