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Dope is a rather new slang word that is used to define someone or something excellent, great, impressive. OED says that it is originally in African-American usage and chiefly among rap musicians and enthusiasts. However, you can hear it outside the rap realm nowadays.

OED's first citation is from 1981:

Yo, man, them boys is dope... This record is dope.

J. Spicer Money (song) in L. Stanley Rap: the Lyrics (1992) 301

On the other hand, OED says "of uncertain origin" for the etymology of dope for this sense; but probably from the noun dope meaning:

Any thick liquid or semi-fluid used as an article of food, or as a lubricant. U.S. [OED]

For the etymology of noun dope, OED gives:

apparently < Dutch doop dipping, sauce, etc., < doopen to dip.

But what is the connection between the earlier meanings and last meaning of the word?


Dope has a variety of meanings:

First sense:

  • From 1872: a preparation, mixture, or drug which is not specifically named
  • From 1912: a varnish applied to the cloth surface of aeroplane parts
  • From 1923: more widely: any kind of material applied to a surface or used in an operation.
  • From 1930: a substance added to petrol or other fuel, etc., to increase its efficiency; an additive.

Second sense:

  • From 1880: an absorbent material used to hold a lubricant; the absorbent element in a high explosive.

Third sense:

  • From 1851: colloq. (orig. dial.). A stupid person, a simpleton, a fool. Also (U.S. slang), a person under the influence of, or addicted to, some drug

  • From 1886: Opium, especially the thick treacle-like preparation used in opium-smoking’ (Cent. Dict. Suppl. 1909); hence applied to stupefying drugs and narcotics in general, or to alcoholic drink. slang (orig. U.S.).

  • From 1900: A medical preparation administered to a race-horse for the purpose of affecting its performance.

  • From 1915: [Perhaps arising from the ambiguity of the abbrev. coke = (a) cocaine, (b) Coca-Cola.] Coca-Cola or some other carbonated drink. local U.S. slang.

Fourth sense:

  • From 1901: Information, esp. on a particular subject or of a kind not widely disseminated or easily obtained; (a statement of) facts or essential details; also, information, a statement, etc., designed to gloss over or disguise facts; flattering or misleading talk. slang (orig. U.S.).

  • From 1915: gen. Something designed to deceive or bamboozle; a fraudelent design or action; a piece of deception or humbug; also, a person employed in a fraudulent transaction.

In the end, did dope meaning excellent originate as an allusion to drugs? The third sense of the word is related to using drugs but originally meant a stupid person; then applied to the drug addicts.

  • 3
    Drugs seem like the most probable connection but I'm no expert. – Adrian Larson Jan 5 '16 at 16:25
  • Dope in this connotation means drugs, i.e. “the real deal”. “Hey did you get some dope or is it bunk?” This evolved to mean something good, someone real or exceptional, one who doesn’t front, etc. “that show last night was dope” (we didnt get ripped off). – Doug Ecklund Jan 7 '16 at 13:19
  • As Josh suggests, it's common for slang words to flip-flop from one extreme of meaning to the other. Hot/cool, "bitchin'", mean, bad, and no doubt many,many others that I don't know because I'm so far out of the loop. – Hot Licks Jan 7 '16 at 13:55
  • Etymonline.com, which draws from various sources, says the use of dope to mean drugs came about separately from the use of the word dope to mean a stupid person. It all comes from doop, a Dutch word for a thick sauce. From etymonline.com: -Extension to "drug" is 1889, from practice of smoking semi-liquid opium preparation. -Meaning "foolish, stupid person" is older (1851) and may have a sense of "thick-headed." – DesdeCuando Jan 17 '16 at 20:39
  • Ladies and gentleman get away from the intellectual sense of things and come to Park-X , here in the 70's dope was prevalent everywhere. Here the word on the street is that "dope" is " heroin". So for all of you intellectuals out there welcome to PARK- EX. Since I have a Masters in English, here is your intellectual explanation; DOPE: Slang form of heroine derived from the high dopamine content which is the basis of heroine. Enjoy the definition! Kees – KEES May 3 '17 at 0:19
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Here is a look at how three dictionaries of Black English slang have handled the term dope. First, from Clarence Major, Dictionary of Afro-American Slang (1970):

Dope: information; at times also used to refer to illegal drugs but mainly in mockery of "square" usage.

From Geneva Smitherman, Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner (1994):

DOPE 1) See DEF ["Great; superb; excellent. ... Also boss, mean, cool, hip, terrible, outa sight, monsta, dynamite (older terms); fresh, hype, jammin, slammin, kickin, bumpin, humpin, phat, pumpin, stoopid[,] stupid, vicious, down, dope, on, raw (newer terms)."] 2) Marijuana, crack, or any other illegal drug.

From Clarence Major, Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang (1994):

Dope n. (1980s–1990s) Mainstream American slang users in the thirties used "dope" to refer to food or to information and only occasionally used it in connection with drugs. It was revived in the eighties as a term for illegal drugs and used frequently on the black street culture scene. (F[ield] R[esearch].) S[outhern and] N[orthern] U[se].

Dope n., adj. (1870s–1990s) information; at times also used to refer to illegal drugs but mainly in mockery of "square" usage; by the 1980s it was being used as an adjective, meaning good or outstanding. (H[yman] E[.] G[oldin, Frank O'Leary & Morris Lipsius], D[ictionary of] A[merican] U[nderworld] L[ingo] [(1950)], p. 60; [Harold] W[entworth & Stuart] F[lexner], D[ictionary of] A[merican] S[lang] [(1967)], p. 156.) Examples: "You get the dope on the situation and we'll take it from there." S[outhern and] N[orthern] U[se].

J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1993) offers this entry for the relevant sense of dope as an adjective:

dope adj. Rap Music. excellent; wonderful; superb; very attractive or enjoyable. [First cited occurrences:] 1981 J. Spicer, in Stanley Rap 301: Yo, man, them boys is dope. ... This record is dope. 1988 N.Y. Times (Aug. 29) C 15: Dope...superb, outstanding...That's a dope Porsche. 1988 Spin (Oct.) 47: Dope, adj., the ultimate...fresh incredible. Ibid. 48: Gucci may be good, but fake Gucci is what's really dope. Ibid. 58: This is a dope jam.

The most striking thing about these dictionary discussions is that none of them finds any use of dope as an adjective before 1981. Lighter, in particular, offers extensive coverage of dope as a noun, identifying instances of slang usage that go back almost 200 years and extend across two dozen distinct meanings: "gravy" (first as doup, 1807), "a stupid person" (1851), "an unidentified unwholesome or poisonous liquid" (1872), "grease" (1876), "medicine or medication of any kind" (1877), "any absorbent or adsorbent solid material used in the manufacture of high explosives" (1880), "butter" (1889), "an alcoholic drink" (1889), "specifically, opium or an opium derivative" (1891), "the Baltimore & Ohio railroad" (1893), "a usu. illegal stupefying or stimulating drug" (1898), "a drug addict" (1899), "coffee" (1899), "stuff (in the broadest sense)" (1899), "information about a racehorse's record, condition, etc." (1899), "full, esp. inside, information of any kind" (1902), "a thick sweet syrup" 1904), "flattery; cajolery; foolishness; nonsense" (1906), "any carbonated soft drink" (1914), "a cigarette" (1918), "a drugged state" (1919), "a slow pitch [in baseball]" (1929), "specifically, marijuana or hashish" (1946), "an ice-cream sundae" (1949), and "sight adjustment [in shooting]" (1987).

Interestingly, Jonathon Green, Chambers Dictionary of Slang (2008) identifies an additional meaning of the noun dope that Lighter either omits or interprets very differently:

dope n. ... 8 {1900s–1910s} (US) constr. with the, the suitable or ideal thing.

Regrettably, the dictionary doesn't cite any contemporaneous instances of this usage. I suspect, though, that Green's meaning "the suitable or ideal thing" may apply to the same subset of slang instances that Lighter assigns the meaning "stuff (in the broadest sense)"; the dates given for the two meanings align fairly well, anyway. Green alludes to the "suitable or ideal thing" meaning again in the entry for the adjective dope:

dope adj. {lit[eral] and fig[urative] uses of DOPE [in the sense of "any form of illicit drug"} 1 {1930s+} pertaining to drugs 2 {1980s+} (US black) (also dope-ass) very good, excellent {note DOPE n (8)}

Green's reference in the entry for adjective dope to "the dope" in its 1900s–1910s sense of "the suitable or ideal thing" appropriately calls attention to their having a similarly positive meaning, but Green stops well short of indicating that the adjective arose from a preserved memory of this rather obscure noun sense, which had died out of common usage sixty years earlier. It would be quite a stretch to claim that origin for the adjective dope.

On the other hand, I see no evidence that the adjective dope, in the sense of "excellent or outstanding," owes its existence to any of the informational senses of the noun dope, either. The early definitions of the adjective form of dope emphasize the notion of being admirable or enjoyable, rather than of being insightful or well informed. It's possible that the original meaning of the adjective dope represents a telescoping of the idea "as good as [being on] dope," in the "drug" sense of dope. But absent a direct recorded connection between the adjective dope and any of its many noun dope predecessors, any such conclusion is ultimately speculative.


Side note on Jimmy Spicer's "Dollar Bill, Y'all (Money)"

J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1993) cites Lawrence A. Stanley, Rap: The Lyrics (1992) as the source of the first use of dope in the sense of "excellent," in which Stanley quotes Jimmy Spicer's "Dollar Bill, Ya'll (Money)" (1981) as follows [combined snippets]:

Jimmy Spicer

Money (Dollar Bill, Y’all)

Yo, man, them boys is dope

Word

Scratchmaster T (Oh man), Supertrooper (Word) — the posse is definitely in effect

Word (word), that's a good record, man

Yo, yo, yo, hold up, m — , yo, can I get a dollar, man?

A dollar?

Anyone got a dollar?

Yeah

You want a dollar?

This is Bill, man, I ain't got no change

I'm kinda thirsty I don't got no change

OK, I'll give you a dollar, you want a dollar?

Well let me hear the record at least

You want a dollar?

First the record

Psyche, I'll tell you what — dollar bill, y'all

This is by Jimmy Spicer

This record is dope, this is about cash money

Dollar bill, y'all, check it out

Dollar bill, y'all

Dollar bill, y'all

Dollar dollar dollar dollar dollar bill, y'all

...

And yet it seems that everything up to the first repetition of "Dollar bill, y'all/ Dollar bill y'all" is conversational studio patter—part of the initial presentation of the rap, but not part of the extremely popular recorded version, which was released in 1983 and can be heard on YouTube in two versions—one of 7 minutes, 14 seconds and one of 4 minutes, 31 seconds.

The upshot of this discussion is that dope in the sense of "excellent" didn't reach a mass audience in the early 1980s by appearing in Spicer's extremely popular and influential rap recording—because it didn't appear in that recording. The spread in usage of dope as "excellent" seems to have been slower and more organic, and Spicer seems to have been an early user but not (on this evidence) a crucial promoter. The actual mechanism of the term's popularization remains to be identified.

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Dope as a positive appears to be the result of a process (typical of slang) in which sometime words meaning is drastically changed, as in this case, from negative to 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).

(blog.oxforddictionaries.com)

  • I found this article but I didn't think it had all the answers. Incongruity is a theory of humor but I couldn't find much back-up. There could be a starting point of the word. Dope is not necessarily from bad to good. But this answer is good for a question like "Why slang words tend to get opposite meanings from their original meanings?". – ermanen Jan 5 '16 at 16:53
  • 1
    @ermanen - OED says: "Origin uncertain. Probably <dope n. Chiefly among rap musicians and enthusiasts" - Drugs are (rightly) generally considered something negative, but they can make you feel, experience sensations you never had before. Don't you think that drug ecstatic effects may be a reasonable reference for "excellent, extraordinary or cool" given the context this connotation was born? – user66974 Jan 5 '16 at 17:12
  • Yes, good point. That's what I thought also but trying to find some more evidence regarding the connection between different meanings. I will wait if we can get some more answers but you have some good starting points. – ermanen Jan 5 '16 at 17:25
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Question: Did dope, meaning excellent, originate as an allusion to drugs?

Answer: The short answer is absolutely yes.

Explanation:

Dope, in this context is a cultural jargon. It implies that the entity in which it is being applied to is "excellent", similar to Hot, Fresh, Slick, Cold, Ill etc.

Examples:

  1. Yo, man, them boys is dope... This record is dope.
  2. Yo, man, them boys is Fresh... This record is fresh.
  3. Yo, man, them boys is Hot... This record is Hot.
  4. Yo, man, them boys is Cold... This record is Cold.

The word is an expression in this context(it can also define a persons style), however it can also refer to drugs.

The third sense of the word is related to using drugs but originally meant a stupid person; then applied to the drug addicts.

Example: Yo, man, them boys is dope... I think they on dope.

And the Third sense of the word did imply idiocy, i.e Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Source: A young intelligent Black male.

  • 4
    Do you have any evidence to back up your assertions? – Hot Licks Jan 15 '16 at 21:36
  • 1
    @HotLicks yea, myself. Being a young intelligent black male, who uses this term regularly. This discussion is talking about a term that is heavily used in the young black/minority communities... – KING Jan 15 '16 at 21:39
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In 1915, the word dope was also used as a superlative for something excellent and enjoyable in a sense that was lacking drug connotations.

For an example, see: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045487/1915-03-27/ed-1/seq-5/#date1=1789&index=2&rows=20&words=dope&searchType=basic&sequence=0&state=&date2=1924&proxtext=Dope&y=0&x=0&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1 There is simply no way that account of Mary Pickford's life is being referred to as being "great dope" intending any sort of reference to drugs.

Considering the intense activity of prohibitionists and anti-drug activity during that era it makes no sense for the word to have arisen from a strictly drug origin. I think modern etymologies are leading people off-base by misconstruing the meaning of its origin as a word for "sauce" and getting fixated on the more modern applications of the word.

"Saucy" and "sauced" refer to two quite different things despite being derived from the word "sauce".

  • Yes, but no telling how long something remained in vogue from 1915. And a usage from 1915 does not mean a new one could not arise two generations later from the 'underground', as it were. – AmE speaker Dec 22 '16 at 22:52
  • I don't think that dope in the phrase "It is great dope"—where "It" refers to "the story of Mary Pickford's career"—can reasonably be construed as meaning "something excellent and enjoyable." That interpretation of the word would lead make "It is great dope" equivalent to "It is great something excellent." To the contrary, dope seems to be functioning in the cited sentence as a synonym for "information" or "entertainment." The word great, not the word dope, is responsible for the sense of "excellent [or] enjoyable" in the quotation. – Sven Yargs Jan 6 '17 at 19:14

protected by tchrist May 3 '17 at 0:31

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