May 23, 2012

Droppin science on the dictionary


It’s not usually my first port of call for music news, but there was a great tribute to Adam Yauch on the OED blog last week. It’s cheering to know that even that venerable etymological organ has taken note of the Beastie Boys‘ excellence: it quotes the band nine times in connection with recent coinages. Here’s the entry for ill (verb):

intr. U.S. slang (orig. and chiefly in the language of rap and hip-hop). To behave badly or irrationally. Cf. ILL adj. and n. Additions a.

1986   ‘Run-DMC’ (title of song)    You be illin’.

1986   ‘Beastie Boys’ (title of album)    Licensed to ill.

1988   ‘Slick Rick’ Treat her like a Prostitute (song) in L. A. Stanley Rap: the Lyrics (1992) 298   Next thing you know, the ho starts to ill She says, ‘I love you, Harold’ and your name is Will.

1997   Jet 22 Sept. 40/1,   I was illing, juggling all of these ladies and not respecting any of them—or myself.

2002   Entertainm. Weekly 2 Aug. 41   ‘Mike’s illin’,’ Nelly says, shaking his head sadly.

They’re also cited under: ill as an adjective (‘Cause I am most ill, and I’m rhymin’ and stealin’); back (adverb), in the phrase ‘back in the day’; mellow (noun, sense 2); peace (interjection) in the phrase ‘peace out’; rhyme (verb); and rock (verb, sense 1). And, of course, the phrase to drop science. Maybe the most pleasing Beasties moment in lexicography, though, is their (possible) coinage of the indispensable word ‘mullet’. The first recorded use is given as 1994’s ‘Mullet Head’:

You wanna know what’s a mullet?
Well, I got a little story to tell
About a hair style that’s way of life
Have you ever seen a mullet wife?

Remember also the helpful instructions: cut the sides, don’t touch the back.

Thank you for the music and also for the words, Adam.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.