“and when I say dope, I ain’t talking ’bout smokin, I’m talkin ’bout music that has an emotion”
– NF

I love rap. It’s music that bends language to its will and weaponizes poetry across the landscape of alliteration and rhyme.

What makes rap work is the artist’s word choice, or diction. It’s the art of phrasing. It’s the science of talking ourselves out of (or into) trouble. It’s the decision that has to be made after every percussive press of the space bar.

Diction is what determines our ability to communicate well. It can be wonderful, annoying, or annoyingly difficult.

Photo: John Fowler - (CC BY 2.0)

Photo: John Fowler – (CC BY 2.0)

For example, have you ever tried to write a letter to your grandmother or a ranking member of the CIA (especially if that’s the same person)? Diction is what makes that exercise difficult because, unless your name is Emily Gilmore, we are largely unfamiliar with the more sophisticated diction of high class language (or spy stuff for that matter).

Less sophisticated casuals aren’t any better (i.e. you’re in this category if you can’t afford an island). We have the digital jargon market cornered (rotfl) and frequently incorporate obscure references into contemporary speech. Here’s two:

Photo: Gary - (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Photo: Gary – (CC BY-NC 2.0)

On Point

In ballet, the phrase ‘en pointe’ describes a dancer who has fully extended their feet, and is supporting all of their body weight on the tips of their toes.

“Proper technique is also evident from a dancer’s body alignment, by visualizing a straight line that extends from the center of the hip through the toes. When a properly aligned dancer is viewed from the side, the line passes through the knee, ankle joint, and big toe joints. When viewed from the front, the line passes through the knee, ankle joint, and the joints of the second toe or middle toe or the area between those toe joints” – Wikipedia

But we use it to describe a really great burger. Same thing right?

The ballet technique, from what I understand, is inordinately difficult often taking years of practice to become proficient. However, the cultural derivative on point is typically confined to something tangible, or specific (e.g. a skill, poetry, or coffee).

“That chicken parmesan is on point!”


I found the photo above under common license. It’s title is Negro drinking at ‘Colored’ water cooler in streetcar terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma” ca. July 1939. This is just shy of fifteen years before segregation would officially become illegal in mid May of 1954 (Brown vs. Board of Education). It’s a photo of a human being marginalized in the name of different.

It was a perfect storm. I mean, we’re talkin’ post-segregation. And what are you gonna do? The factories have closed and no one’s hiring anybody from the urban community because of what you look like. And now there’s a war going on in Nicaragua and drugs are being imported into your community. Are you gonna to sell drugs or are you gonna be homeless? Cause the government’s not paying attention.
– LeCrae, Gangland

And the drugs that appeared in those same communities after fifteen years of oppression, marginalization, and injustice? Marijuana and heroin. Dope (depending on what side of the tracks you grew up on).

Hello easy money.

The business side of drug abuse became a way out of poverty for the marginalized and disenfranchised urban community of the late 1950’s and 1960’s. The following conjecture is purely my own, but perhaps this is why dope is frequently used to describe exemplary actions, ideas, or circumstances. It’s one word that summarily describes a lucrative way of life despite the forces against them. Hope is a good thing, but it can still get mixed up in the wrong business.

Drugs, segregation, and Civil Rights have ties to hip-hop, racism, racial prejudice, prison demographics, white privilege, and a long list of things people have suffered greatly over. These things are worth thinking about because solid thinking on these subjects invites change, an open mind, and understanding where there has been none.

I’m going to lighten the mood a bit, but promise yourself to do some more thinking on this later. It will be well worth it (now’s a good time to go and refill your coffee).


What doesn’t make sense to me is why dope is entering the contemporary vernacular as a common exclamation for excellence. For example:

“And then they just gave you the pizza? That’s dope!”

We traded marvelous, phenomenal, and pretty neat away in a vernacular drug deal.
Roget would die.

Moving Forward

What’s interesting are the components of the diction that are carried forward, and which components are left behind. With on point the sophistication stays behind while the connotation of excellence and precision is carried forward. Dope also attempts to shed it’s past, but dons the positive denotation. 

It is the ambition of the creative to communicate not with mediocrity, but with excellence. The diction of shutter speed, paint colors, and wood grain serves the photographer, painter, and carpenter just as words to the wordsmith.

Create carefully.

CHALLENGE: Think about something you say frequently. Why do you say it? Do some research and find out where it came from. Post what you find in the comments!