The Last "Mohican"?
wilson.gray at RCN.COM
Wed Aug 10 21:37:11 UTC 2005
On Aug 10, 2005, at 3:40 PM, Benjamin Zimmer wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> Sender: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster: Benjamin Zimmer <bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU>
> Subject: Re: The Last "Mohican"?
> On Wed, 10 Aug 2005 14:40:55 -0400, Wilson Gray <wilson.gray at RCN.COM>
>> 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
>> 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.
My father, a native of backwoods Alabama, though he was a graduate of
the University of Wisconsin, went to his death pronouncing it as [dEf].
Usually, I agree completely with anything that Staples writes. This
time I don't. Both the locution, "be death on NP," and the
pronunciation, [dEf], are *far* more widespread than Staples suggests.
> HDAS cites "Rapper's Delight" from 1979: "Drive off in a def OJ." The
> draft entry chooses to transcribe the line as "death OJ" and puts the
> 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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