Where Illin' Came From

This weekend's New York Times crossword puzzle has sparked a linguistic debate: What does the word "illin'" mean? 

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This weekend's New York Times crossword puzzle has sparked a linguistic debate: What does the word "illin'" really mean? A clue in this weekend's puzzle read "Wack, in hip-hop," for which the answer was: Illin'. Upon seeing the "right answer" for this clue, writer Julieanne Smolinski a.k.a Boobs Radley questioned puzzle editor Will Shortz, saying in an e-mail to him, reposted on Gawker, "These are not the same things, at all!" -- she actually believes the word means the exact opposite, "'Ill' in a positive sense," she clarifies in a later email. Citing two slang dictionaries and Urban Dictionary, Shortz disagrees, these sources all point to synonyms for wack. "It seems to me the clue is fine," he wrote back. The debate went unresolved, as even Gawker's own writers couldn't agree on the definition, the post prompted a "shouting match at Gawker's HQ." So, what does illin' mean?

Turns out Shortz's clue is accurate. Way back in 1986 hip-hop group Run DMC used the term "illin'" to mean wack, in their song "You Be Illin'." The song presents various insane scenarios, where the person is doing things we would consider pyscho. The opening stanza:

(One) day when I was chillin' in Kentucky Fried Chicken
Just mindin' my business, eatin' food and finger lickin'
This dude walked in lookin' strange and kind of funny
Went up to the front with a menu and his money
He didn't walk straight, kind of side to side
He asked this old lady, "Yo, yo, um...is this Kentucky Fried?"
The lady said "Yeah", smiled and he smiled back
He gave a quarter and his order, small fries, Big Mac!
You be illin'

Indeed, someone who orders a Big Mac at KFC is acting like a crazy person. This is the illin' to which Shortz refers.

But, to Smolinksi's credit, at that exact same time, white boy rap group the Beastie Boys released their debut album Licensed to Ill. And it's here we find the heart of split. Beyond the title, on the album, the Beastie Boys use illin' as a synonym for cool at least three times, including "the most illingest b-boy" in the track "Rhymin and Stealing." It's not a complete departure from the Run DMC version, as the Beastie Boys are illin' in a badass way. But, it's certainly a positive thing.

But we do not live in 1986. Over time the word has evolved, as rappers used it ironically, to the verb form of the word "ill," which Urban Dictionary defines as "cool, tight, sweet." Like, how "sick" can both mean disgusting and cool, illin' has transformed over the years from "wack" to "epic" or "legendary" as another urban dictionary entry has for its definition of illin'. Smolinski cites a T.I. song as her reference. We think she means 2008's "I'm Illy," which doesn't actually say the word "illin'" at all. But T.I. spends the entire song talking about how amazing he is, proving Smolinski's point.

We're not sure when the term transitioned from crazy to cool (think the emergence of "bad" as "good"), but as early as 1994, Nas used it that way for Illmatic. From the track "One Time 4 Your Mind":  

When I'm chillin, I grab the buddha, get my crew to buy beers
And watch a flick, illin' and root for the villian, huh

This use seems to take on both the Beastie Boys and Run DMC meanings. Nas is wack in the sense that he has chosen to "root for the villain," which many might see as crazy. But with his crew and some beers, it's obviously the cool thing to do.

Not surprisingly, The New York Times is behind the times when it comes to slang. Let's not forget we're talking about a publication that first used an emoticon a few months ago. And it was a big deal.  Last year, the puzzle had a similar clue last March, with illin' as the answer for "Crazy, in rap slang." And just last Friday, as Anna Holmes notes on Twitter, The Times had "DORAGS" as the answer to "Rappers' toppers" at 51 across in the puzzle to the right. Not many rappers these days still sport do-rags and people probably shouldn't look to New York Times crossword creators as authorities on hip hop culture.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.