View OED entry

def adjective earlier than 1981

The word def, meaning ‘excellent; outstanding; “cool”’ is one of the earliest and most prominent terms to come to mainstream slang from hip-hop, but its early history is shrouded in confusion. The first clear example recorded in the OED is actually from language writer William Safire, whose discussion underlines the problems:

Deaf—a mispronunciation of ‘death’—is the current superlative.

William Safire, in N.Y. Times Magazine, 18 January 1981

Most discussions of the word point to earlier evidence, from the groundbreaking song ‘Rapper’s Delight’. But the original published lyrics of this song show something different:

Someone get a fly girl, gonna get some spank and drive off in a death O.J.

The Sugarhill Gang, ‘Rapper’s Delight’, 1979

Later transcriptions of the song tend to give the penultimate word as def, but the pronunciation on the recording itself is indistinct. In either case, the pronunciation of word-final -th as -f is common in some variants of Caribbean English (it is not simply a ‘mispronunciation’), and it seems likely that def originated among rap musicians as a variant of death in expressions like to be death on in the sense ‘to be extremely good at’. The name of the English rock band Def Leppard (formed in 1977), has sometimes been interpreted as an instance of this usage, but it has been explained by the band members as an alteration of the word deaf, and thus does not represent the same word.

Can you help us find a clear example of def from before 1981? Or an example of death in this sense from before 1979?

Posted by OED_Editor on 4 June 2013 15.02
Comments: 6

  • Bryn_OED

    It might be helpful if the OED Entry links could be accessible to non-subscribers, as this seems to vary between the different appeals.

    Especially for this Def appeal, since agency versions of the William Safire article do seem to infer a more nuanced range of meanings, for Deaf / Death, as recognised above.

    “Her classmate Lateshia Holland added that’s deaf, which she defined as `nice clothes’ …”
    “… deaf – a mispronunciation of `death’ – is the current superlative. (In topsyturvytalk, death is the liveliest and baad-baader-baadest is the equivalent of `good-better-best’)”

    Hence, the context of the OED Entry might help with that – Safire, also, seeming to infer that `Chill’ meant `Cool’, at that time.

    • The entry links should be accessible to non-subscribers. There is a technical problem in this instance, but we are working to fix it. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  • Erikka Askeland

    Surely the rapper Dante Terrell Smith capitalised on slang “mos def” (most definitely) when he chose that as his stage name. Good example of usage of “mos def” in first series of The Wire

  • hb1616

    Black communication : dimensions of research and instruction / by Jack L Daniel; / New York : Speech Communication Association, 1974:
    “doin it to death” (performing a task at your optimum level)

    • Bryn_OED

      Interesting find.
      That phrase and the fashion usage within the
      William Safire article do raise thoughts about whether some revival of the [then out of use] phrase dress to death might have played a small role, en route to Def:

      death, dress to. To dress oneself in the extreme of fashion: coll; from ca 1850. cf.
      dress to death (later to kill) or within an inch of one’s life. To dress ultra-smartly: coll (–1859).

      • hb1616

        It was obviously of American origin:
        Ballou’s Monthly Magazine 1857
        “If you want an ignoramus to respect you, ‘dress to death,’ and wear watch seals about the size of a brick-bat.