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Feelin’ “aight”?

In the early 90s hip-hop artist Doug E. Fresh released a single called “I-Ight (Alright)”. The song wasn’t what you’d call a smash hit, but I mention it today because the editors of the OED have just put its namesake aight into the dictionary. Looking at the entry, it seems that Mr. Fresh was a bit of a lexical trail-blazer in his use of the word some 20 years ago.  By styling his song “I-Ight” in 1993, he became one of the first to author the word aight in published text.  He’s even glossed it “(Alright)” for everyone who hadn’t caught on yet.

We learn from the OED entry that aight represents a colloquial pronunciation of “all right”. The most common spelling is accomplished by omitting the “ll r” from “all right” and combining the remaining letters. That form hasn’t yet become the standard, though, and there’s a lengthy list of variations still kicking around in the wild, such as ay-ightaiite, and even the occasional aaaaaaaight. As the dictionary indicates, aight’s colloquial English, so you should probably avoid dropping it into your college essays, newspaper columns, and legal documents. It looks to be the most recent evolution of the “all right” –> “allright” –> “alright” pedigree, which I’m sure will guarantee it all kinds of coverage in English Usage style guides.

Alright hear this

Dig into the entry’s quotation paragraphs, and you’ll see that the OED’s earliest examples come from the music magazine Vibe and hip-hop artists Diddy & The Notorious B.I.G., dating 1993 and 1994, respectively. Upon first glance, this seems far too late to me. Surely there were rappers rhyming with aight in the 1980s. Why doesn’t the OED cite any of them? Have the Oxford boffins got something against DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince? Maybe, but I suspect that’s not what stopped them. In evidencing dictionary items, OED editors are limited by and large to what’s available in print. This makes finding early examples of colloquial language very difficult, as most non-standard English doesn’t make it into publication. Aight was probably spoken aloud before the 90s, but if nobody recorded it in publication then, how can we corroborate that usage?

Transcription could be one option. I have in mind a Run-D.M.C. track from the deluxe edition of their first album. It’s a live recording of “Here We Go” from August of 1983. In the run-up to the first verse, D.M.C. says to the audience, “All right, aight, check this out.” Now, I’m fairly confident that the second element in that statement is “aight”. It’s distinct from the first, which is clearly “all right”, and I can’t make out any ‘l’ or ‘r’ sounds. Could the OED quote that recording and antedate the entry 10 years? Probably not. Even if what I’ve written faithfully represents what I’ve heard, there’s still a possibility of discrepancy. Transcriptions can vary, especially of lyrics. Add to that the risk of normalization (e.g. deliberately transcribing aight as “all right”), and things get even hairier. Unless Run-D.M.C. write in and authorize my version, there’s just no way to be certain. Russell Simmons, holla back?

Meantime, I’ll just have to content myself with 1993 and Doug E. Fresh. It’s not a bad consolation, really. La di da di, we like to party, aight?

Image: Jason Persse. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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