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Time to get ill: Beastie Boys lyrics in the Oxford English Dictionary

Like many folks of my generation, upon hearing about the death of Adam Yauch, aka MCA, I’ve spent the last few weeks revisiting my Beastie Boys’ albums. At one point during my listen, I began to wonder about their lyrics and what kind of mark they’ve made on the English language. Is it possible that any of these rhymes I grew up memorizing have found their way into the Oxford English Dictionary?

With this question in mind I rocked up to my desk and began my search, which, I’m happy to say, yielded some pleasantly surprising results. The OED quotes the Beastie Boys nine times! That’s a pretty respectable tally for any modern author, let alone a trio of rappers whose renown is largely due to a song called “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)”. As a small tribute to our home-piece MCA, here are a few of my favorite ways the Beastie Boys are representin’ in the dictionary.

Licensed to ill

My first stop is the OED’s entry for ill (verb) where I was encouraged to discover the Beasties kickin’ it with Slick Rick and Run-DMC. After all, ill is kind of the Beastie Boys’ shtick, and without question, it’s the word I most commonly associate with them. Props to the OED for citing Licensed to Ill as evidence there:

 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.

The B-Boys also make an appearance next-door at OED‘s entry for ill (adjective) where they’re heading up the quotations at the sense meaning “Excellent, attractive; fashionable” with an excerpt from Licensed to Ill’s “Rhymin’ & Stealin’”: ‘Most illin-est b-boy, I got that feelin’, ‘Cause I am most ill, and I’m rhymin’ and stealin’.’

Everybody knows I’m known for droppin’ science

Another place I’d hoped to find a Beastie Boys lyric was drop (verb). After years of their music, I can’t help but pause on that word without thinking of Ad-Rock shouting ‘Mmm… DROP!’ (from “The New Style”, but also sampled in “Johnny Ryall” and “Intergalactic”, among others). I was stoked, then, to see the OED supplies some of “The Sounds of Science” to illustrate the verb phrase ‘to drop science’. Check it out:

To impart knowledge or wisdom, freq. about social issues, esp. through the medium of rap or hip-hop music.

1988   ‘Beastie Boys’ Sounds of Science (transcription of song) in www.lyricsfreak.com (O.E.D. Archive),   Now here we go dropping science,..Expanding the horizons.

1990   ‘Paris’ Break Grip of Shame (song) in L. A. Stanley Rap: the Lyrics (1992) 245   Paris is my name, I don’t sleep I drop science and keep the peace.

1994   Straight No Chaser Summer 6   The Silent Poets—fresh from recording with Menelik in Paris—slipped into South London to drop science with the Mad Professor.

1999   Village Voice Lit. Suppl. Apr.–May 84/1   Stylish, confident, and capable of dropping science on everything from the roots of rap to the vagaries of child-support legislation.

 *In researching this article, I came across an earlier example of this phrase in the Eric B. & Rakim track ‘My Melody’ (1987): “I drop science like a scientist”. We hope to get that one into the quotation paragraph in the next OED update!

Business in the front, party in the back

In historical lexicography, proving coinage can be a tricky pursuit. Even after consulting the OED’s earliest print evidence, it can be exceedingly difficult to know for sure who (if anyone) really invented a word. With that qualification in mind, let’s take a look at the entry for which the Beastie Boys are most famous in the lexicographical community. It’s a contribution any author would be proud to make to his native tongue, and I’ve no doubt that posterity will look back fondly on the Beastie Boys for their part in:

As you can see in OED’s etymology, the origin of mullet (noun, sense 9), is uncertain; we can’t say for sure if the Beastie Boys coined it. Even though there’s something decidedly un-hip-hop about mullet, the idea of the Beasties getting there first feels kind of right, wouldn’t you say? In any case, it’s evident from the quotations that the Beasties played a sizeable part in bringing the term to the fore in popular culture, so a tip of the hat to them for raising mullet awareness!

Get it together

That, ladies and gents, marks the close of my tour. As I mentioned before, the Beastie Boys have been quoted elsewhere in the dictionary, so if you’d like to drop in to the other entries featuring their lyrics, you’ll find them at 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).  In the meantime, mad thanks to MCA, Ad Rock, and Mike D for making the Oxford English Dictionary just a little bit cooler.

 

Image by Masao Nakagami (http://www.flickr.com/photos/goro_memo/223859228/) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia