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Aretha Franklin, ‘Respect’, and the OED

Aretha Franklin, ‘Respect’, and the OED

Most of us can rattle off the ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’ bit of Aretha Franklin’s signature tune, but how much do you know about the rest of the lyrics? See if you can fill in the blank below:

I’m about to give you all of my money,
And all I’m askin’ in return, honey,
Is to give me my _______
When you get home

Profits, right? Or at least that’s what I thought. The ‘all of my money’ and ‘asking in return’ lines seem to support that idea, but don’t be fooled. This isn’t an investment. Aretha’s actually demanding her propers, which is synonymous with respect. Check out the corresponding entry in the Oxford English Dictionary:

Notice the cross-reference to props, a slang term popularized by rappers in the late ’80s & early ’90s (e.g. I gotta give it up to Mr. Cool J / for givin’ props to the girls around the way). Check its etymology, and you’ll learn that what feels a recent piece of slang, actually has deep roots–props derived from this sense of propers. Respect.

Now, if I’ve got my facts straight, Atlantic Records released Aretha’s song in April of 1967. That means, in terms of the propers history tallied in the OED entry above, “Respect” features the oldest example of this sense that we’ve yet discovered.

The meaning of ‘TCB’

See if you can’t supply the missing part of this lyric:

Find out what it means to me,
____ ____, ___

Transcriptions of this mondegreen vary. Some people hear “take out the T-C-P”, which sounds plausible until I try to make sense of ‘R-E-S-E’. A different camp suggest “take care (of the) T.C.P.” and argue that T.C.P. stands for “the coloured people”, referring to the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Much as that interpretation appeals, there’s no truth to it.

Which words did Lady Soul sing then? The line missing above is “Take care, TCB!” It features the classic late ’60s lingo TCB, which expands to “take care of business”. The OED defines this phrase as “to do something in an effective or energetic manner; to take action to good effect” and records the initialism in publication as far back as 1969:

TCB caught a huge break in 1968 when Motown organized a television special called, you guessed it, ‘TCB’. The program starred a few of Aretha’s contemporaries, the Temptations and Diana Ross & the Supremes, performing a musical revue. People all over America tuned in to watch the headlining acts cover Aretha’s “Respect” (and various other hits).Legend has it that this hour of entertainment inspired Elvis to adopt “taking care of business” as his mantra and designate his backing musicians the TCB Band.

Refer to the OED’s history of TCB above and you’ll see that, with our evidence of it in the Motown revue (1968) and Aretha’s line from “Respect” (1967), the term’s a few years older than we thought! Chalk up another antedating for Aretha, and keep an eye out for “Respect” lyrics in a future update!

Otis Redding’s version

By now the music-brains among you may be wondering: isn’t “Respect” an Otis Redding song? Shouldn’t we attribute these lexical significances to him? Well, yes. And no. Otis did write and record “Respect” in 1965, some two years before Aretha spelled it out for the world, but the Queen of Soul didn’t reproduce Redding’s tune verbatim. Those lyrics we examined above don’t occur in Otis’s 1965 recording; they’re Aretha’s*.

Mad props, Ms Franklin, and many happy returns!

*There’s at least one more historically significant example of slang in the lyrics of “Respect”. Can you find it?

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