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