The Last "Mohican"?

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Wed Aug 10 19:40:55 UTC 2005

On Wed, 10 Aug 2005 14:40:55 -0400, Wilson Gray <wilson.gray at RCN.COM> wrote:

>I was afraid of that my making such a distinction was one the cases in
>which a dialect preserves a feature lost from the standard language.
>When I was younger, I knew (black) people who  pronounced "deaf" as
>"deef," the same as the (white) Kentucky hill-country characters in the
>comic strip, Li'l Abner. It had the virtue of keeping "deaf" [dif]
>separate from "death" [dEf].
>An On-Language article written while Safire was on vacation touched on
>this, suggesting that the BE slang term, "def," was really only a
>"phonetic" respelling of the "country" BE pronunciation of "death,"
>ultimately extracted from such phrases as "cat be death [dEf] on mice"
>and influenced by sE "def" from "definitely."

Here's the column you're remembering (by Brent Staples, Dec. 18, 1988):

        Still in search of the derivation of def, I phoned a
        company called Def Jam Recordings, which produces a
        good deal of rap music these days and was founded in
        1984. With the company's logo and stationery, def was
        lent an immortality rare in this era of fame that
        lasts only five minutes. It was with Def Jam
        Recordings that I struck pay dirt - and confirmed a
        deep suspicion.

        Russell Simmons, a founder of the company, said that
        his partner, in designing the logo for the company's
        record label, may have been the first to set def down
        in writing. Simmons also said that his associate had
        clearly misheard the word as it was then spoken in
        the streets. Def, Simmons said, was a mispronunciation
        of death.

        It is common for many people in the rural South and
        the urban Northeast to pronounce "th" as "f." Def,
        then, to my great joy, seems to be a relic of my
        boyhood. When our high-school basketball team soundly
        defeated a rival, we often said, "Man, we were death
        on them," meaning that we had killed them, figuratively.
        Death is used here as an absolute, a locution that is
        in vogue these days.

HDAS cites "Rapper's Delight" from 1979: "Drive off in a def OJ." The OED
draft entry chooses to transcribe the line as "death OJ" and puts the cite
in brackets. Here's what the online Rap Dictionary has to say:
        Some more info on def: comes from the expression "Death
        O.J." but I think first used on record in "Rapper's
        Delight". As Nelson George defines it: "In "Rapper's
        Delight" the term "Death OJ" is used. In current slang
        "death" means something good, while "OJ" is a reference
        to a big car: Erstwhile football star and all-around
        adman O.J. Simpson does Hertz commercials featuring
        Ford and Lincoln Mercury cars. If we add "death" to
        Ford and Lincoln Mercury cars (leaving out any dis-
        respectful reference to Pintos), we come up with the
        "Rapper's Delight" character driving off in a Lincoln
        Continental." From _Buppies, B-Boys, Baps & Bohos:
        Notes on Post-Soul Black Culture_ by Nelson George.

--Ben Zimmer

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