The history of the word ‘dope’ and dope slang
Dope has lived a diverse slang life over the span of two centuries, only coming to its hip-hop adjectival sense of ‘good or excellent’ in the last 35 years.
Fools and thick liquids
Dope as a stupid person was early American slang, first recorded in 1851, according to current Oxford English Dictionary (OED) evidence. Usage in this sense continued through the 20th and 21st centuries. When Disney named the seven dwarfs in the Show White tale in 1937, Dopey was the slow, benevolently foolish one. When the US Army needed a stereotypical foolish soldier for World War II posters, they came up with Joe Dope.
Dope had an earlier slang sense, starting with sauce of gravy (1807), a sweet and sticky syrup (1904), and then a cola-flavored sweet, carbonated drink (1914). The etymology for dope designating foodstuffs like these is apparently from the Dutch doopen, meaning ‘to dip’. Various other viscous entities were also named dope, from a varnish for airplane parts to a substance added to petrol to increase its efficiency. Dope was something of a cover-all for this sort of thick liquid.
Drugs and inside information
Turning to dope in its specific drug sense: in 1886 (according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang), we first heard of a dope fiend – a drug user. A few years later, we find dope referring to opium or a morphine derivative. The link between the syrup and the drug may not be immediately obvious, but it relates to the ‘the thick treacle-like preparation used in opium-smoking’; as early as 1872, dope had referred to ‘a preparation, mixture, or drug which is not specifically named’. In 1933 we encounter dope addict. Dope eventually stood on its own, coming to mean any drug (1900) or medicine (1902). Dope came to refer specifically to marijuana only in 1950 (according to the Historical Dictionary of American Slang); to the extent that dope is used today to refer to a drug, it most commonly means heroin or another opiate. In this general vein, dope has long been used as a verb, first meaning to poison (1862 in HDAS) and then slightly later to administer a stimulant or sedative to a racehorse. The meaning has broadened in recent years to include the use of any banned athletic performance-enhancing drugs by athletic competitors, human or not.
A fourth sense is more than a hundred years old. We find dope sheet meaning a listing of inside information, usually on a horse race, in 1900 (HDAS). In 1901, dope is recorded as simply meaning inside information, a sense which persists today.
Dope as a positive
In 1981, ‘dope’ made the leap from noun to adjective and, more importantly, from negative connotation to positive connotation, coming to mean ‘excellent’ in the lexicon of the emerging hip-hop culture. The process by which dope became good is known as inversion or incongruity. Slang functions as an anti-language. In a short and brilliant article about slang, ‘On Not Teaching English Usage’, in The English Journal (November, 1965), James Sledd states:
‘Slang serves the outs as a weapon against the ins. To use slang is to deny allegiance to the existing order, either jokingly or in earnest, by refusing even the words which represent convention and signal status; and those who are paid to preserve the status quo are prompted to repress slang as they are prompted to repress any other symbol of potential revolution.’
In slang, the world is often upside down – good is bad, and bad is good. In the counter-narrative of the counterculture, the outlaw is often the admired archetype, and thus the world upside down.
By this process, square shifted from being praise to being criticism, freak shifted from derision to empowered pride, and dope from bad to good. It was the one world-upside-down adjective in the pantheon of first-generation hip-hop words of approval, which also included fresh (a new coining) and fly (a repurposed term from the slang of 1930s jazz musicians).