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‘Bling-bling’ in the Oxford dictionary? That’s phat

Times Staff Writer

Imagine the lofty air of expectation for the next edition of the venerable Oxford English Dictionary -- an unprecedented revision is underway that, finally, authoritatively, is expected to nail down those vexing questions of lexicology. To wit: What is the etymology of “bling-bling”?

The editors are drafting a possible entry for the hip-hop slang, which usually refers to diamonds or other flashy jewelry that clinks together, said Jesse Sheidlower, principal North American editor of the dictionary.

Sheidlower is exasperated these days by news reports that have jumped the gun, such as MTV.com’s headline saying that “bling-bling” had already made it into the Oxford dictionary, the definitive chronicler of the English language. “I expect that ‘bling-bling’ will be entered at some point,” Sheidlower said.

The term first caught on in hip-hop circles in 1999 after rapper B.G.'s song “Bling-Bling” was released. B.G. said he was shocked by the news that “bling-bling” is likely to land in the revised dictionary.

“I’m loving it,” he said. “The way it spread, I knew it would go down in history, but the dictionary -- that’s a whole ‘nother level.”

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The imposing dictionary -- the 20-volume set sells for up to $3,000 -- traces the development of the language, starting in 1150 with Early Middle English. It includes formal words such as “motus peculiaris,” a term used in astronomy after 1890 to describe a peculiar motion of a star, and slang such as “three-peat” from the Late Sports Talk Radio period.

For now, the origin of “bling-bling” is a bit of a mystery, but the catchiness is unmistakable. The word is a wink at poetic devices such as onomatopoeia -- “bling-bling” captures the sound and flash of clinking jewelry -- and a “Jabberwocky"-like silliness.

In 2000, “bling-bling” tipped into the mainstream when Shaquille O’Neal and other Lakers players began using the expression to symbolize their goal of a trophy-winning season. Lakers spokesman John Black recalled that O’Neal started using the term in summer 2000 after visiting Phil Jackson’s Montana cabin, where the coach’s shiny championship trophies were on display. O’Neal “started talking bling-bling the entire year,” said Black. That November, “bling-bling” was inscribed on the team’s championship rings, and during the victory parade, fans held signs that picked up on the mantra.

The expression is so common that the mainstream media use “bling-bling” without defining it. Just recently, for instance, news stories noted that rapper Lil’ Kim recovered her bling-bling after having reported the designer jewelry missing from her luggage at Kennedy International Airport.

Such widespread use of a term, several years after it originated, is one way to gauge a word’s currency, said the Oxford dictionary’s Sheidlower.

“Bling-bling” is being considered for inclusion in the upcoming third edition of the dictionary, which is expected to be complete by 2015, Sheidlower said. (And once a word makes it in the OED, it is never removed.) The dictionary, which marks its 75th anniversary this year, is undergoing its first comprehensive, word-by-word revision. During the process, new and revised entries are being posted quarterly online at www.oed.com. Recent online additions to the dictionary have included “def,” hip-hop slang for “cool,” and “Queer Nation,” used to define an activist community of gays and lesbians. Sheidlower is uncertain when an entry for “bling-bling” would appear.

Merriam-Webster’s 11th edition of the Collegiate Dictionary, which was released July 1, includes several hip-hop words, including “phat,” which means cool or sexy, and “gangsta,” a synonym for gang member or a term used to describe a confrontational style of rap music.

“Bling-bling” didn’t make the cut, said Tom Pitoniak, a Merriam-Webster associate editor, but “that’s one we’re looking at” for future inclusion.

In hip-hop circles, such a mainstream nod can be a turnoff. On hiphopmusic.com’s online forum, one fan complained that the Oxford English Dictionary would be co-opting “bling-bling” as "... yet another black colloquialism is blanched and neutered to make the white establishment seem ‘more relevant, smarter and cooler.’ ”

Others say they are happy that rap artists are being recognized for their inventive use of language -- and not just for lyrics that can be offensive.

In the popular and music press, rapper B.G. is widely credited with coining the term. “Me and [producer] Mannie Fresh came up with it,” in the late ‘90s while working for the New Orleans-based Cash Money Records label, B.G. said by phone while on the road promoting his latest CD, “Livin’ Legend.”

Fresh said he made the word up as a co-writer, producer and performer on the song “Bling-Bling.” “It’s something you can be remembered by,” Fresh said of the possible inclusion in the Oxford dictionary. “Flip through the dictionary and go, ‘This is my word. I made this one up.’ ”

He said he knew the word would stick around when he heard Barbara Walters say it on TV.

OED’s Sheidlower said preliminary research shows that the term had been used in the New Orleans rap scene before B.G.'s song came out. And there’s another twist, noted Paul J.J. Payack, president and CEO of yourDictionary.com, an online language guide.

At a reporter’s request, Payack traced “bling-bling” to rapper Tupac Shakur, who was killed in Las Vegas in September 1996. After his death, a double CD, “Until the End of Time,” was released featuring tracks from Shakur’s vaults that he recorded in 1995 and early 1996. A song about his “Friendz” includes these lines: “Check out my diamonds ... everyone gonna blink,” while backup rappers chant, “Bling-bling.”

Payack noted that yourDictionary.com included “bling-bling” on its word-of-the-year list in 2001, ranking it No. 6 on the list of Top 10 California Youthspeak words. The expression also made the list in 2002 but dropped to No. 9. But “Bling-bling” is too popular now, which means it loses its cachet among young people, so likely won’t make the list again, Payack said.


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