Cross-posting a query

Sun Jul 13 00:35:17 UTC 2008

It seems to come from the performing arts; I suspect the origin was theatre, although for some years I believe it's been more associated with music.  As for what it means, I've never been quite sure, although my first example may provide a hint.
New York Times (7/12/1981) (Westlaw):  Jack Lemmon has been showing directors and audiences for more than 30 years, and they have usually believed him. "He has that very fortunate Mr. Everyman face and it's very difficult not to believe him," said Stuart Rosenberg, who directed Lemmon in "The April Fools." "He can keep it real, as opposed to theatrical."
Sacramento Bee (2/2/1986) (Westlaw):  'It's the last waterfront community on the bay where you can fish, and it's nice to walk your dog on the beach,' Arneson said. 'We're trying to preserve it. We don't want to turn it into glitz or a little Jack London Square or Fisherman's Wharf. But how do you keep it real?'
Orlando Sentinel (4/28/1986) (Westlaw):  JAY LENO:  'KEEP IT REAL' . . . ''Nothing can be funny if you don't have a basic normality to come away from. If they don't buy the premise, they don't buy the joke.''  [discussion of the "rules" for comedy]
Philadelphia Inquirer (2/6/1987) (Westlaw):  Before the populist [Joan Jett] swoops off to her next campaign stop, she utters a phrase that could be her slogan, pointing her finger in emphasis: "It's important to keep it real."
Joan Jett's 1987 usage is the kind we now think of.  I'm not certain if we should think of the 2/2/1986 example from the Sacramento Bee as the same usage, or just the literal meaning of "real."
John Baker


From: American Dialect Society on behalf of Laurence Horn
Sent: Sat 7/12/2008 11:53 AM
Subject: Cross-posting a query

I'm sure someone here can antedate "keep it real" beyond the Seinfeld
death by licking-poisoned- cut-rate-wedding-invitation-envelope
episode.  I can post the appropriate antedate on GALA-L, with credit,
for Prof. Colvin.


>Date:         Sat, 12 Jul 2008 15:53:13 +0900
>Sender: International Gender and Language Association
>From: "Robert O'Mochain" <omochain at LANG.OSAKA-U.AC.JP>
>Subject: Re: [GALA-L] "keep it real"
>Dear Sarah Colvin,
>I first heard that expression on an episode of "Seinfeld" (probably 1997).
>In the context of the storyline it seems funny on the lips of the character,
>Costanza, because he uses it to say goodbye to the parents of his former
>finance. They seem too old and high class for that phrase; it seems too
>casual in the context because of the serious tone involved with the parents
>(he was partly responsible for the death of their daughter); and finally,
>because the character in the show often lies to this couple (and often lies
>in general) so the implication of authenticity in "Keep it real," seems
>incongruous coming from "Costanza".
>Hope this helps (if only a little!)
>Robert O'Mochain.
>-----Original Message-----
>From: International Gender and Language Association
>[mailto:GALA-L at LISTSERV.LINGUISTLIST.ORG] On Behalf Of Sarah Colvin
>Sent: Friday, July 11, 2008 10:24 PM
>Subject: [GALA-L] "keep it real"
>Can anybody give me a reference or advise me re. the history, use, and
>meaning of the phrase "keep it real"?
>Sarah Colvin
>Professor Sarah Colvin
>University of Edinburgh
>David Hume Tower
>George Square
>Edinburgh EH8 9JX
>Tel. ++ 131 650 3630
>email: sarah.colvin at
>The University of Edinburgh is a charitable body, registered in
>Scotland, with registration number SC005336.

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