The passing of Aretha Franklin earlier this month set off a rolling celebration of her deep and lasting contributions to American popular music. While the breadth of her life’s work is tremendous, one song more than any other emblematizes her cultural impact: “Respect,” the Queen of Soul’s smash hit from 1967.
By reworking the lyrics and structure of Otis Redding’s original version, Franklin transformed the song into an enduring anthem, its straightforward demand for “a little respect” resonating as both a potent statement of feminist empowerment and a civil-rights cri de coeur. Less remarked upon, however, is the influence that the song has had on the English language.
Though Franklin never received a songwriting credit, the changes she made to Redding’s lyrics (worked out with her sisters and back-up singers Erma and Carolyn) turned the song on its head. Whereas Redding embodied a weary, hardworking man asking for respect for being the breadwinner, Franklin flipped the script, with the woman demanding the recognition she deserves from her man, enunciating her power.
The most famous lyrical transformation comes toward the end of the song, when Franklin spells out her message in no uncertain terms: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.” She spells the word out again, appending the ad-lib, “take care, TCB,” with “TCB” her shorthand for “taking care of business.” Then Erma and Carolyn follow up with the rapid-fire refrain, “Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me … ”
“Sock it to me,” as I explored in a Wall Street Journal column in 2015, served as a general exhortation in African American slang and worked its way into the patter of radio DJs before Aretha and her sisters made it a national catchphrase in 1967. When the daughter of the television producer George Schlatter sang along to the refrain in the family car, Schlatter had the idea of incorporating “sock it to me” into his new show, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. While Judy Carne became Laugh-In’s sock-it-to-me girl, even guests on the show got in on the act by repeating the phrase, most famously Richard Nixon two months before he was elected president in 1968.
But earlier in “Respect,” in the third verse, was an even more significant linguistic contribution. Here is how Otis Redding sang the verse:
Hey little girl, you’re so sweeter than honey / And I’m about to give you all my money / But all I’m askin’, hey, is a little respect when I get home.
Franklin turns the tables in her version:
I’m about to give you all of my money / And all I’m askin’ in return, honey / Is to give me my propers when you get home.
While many have misinterpreted the word as “profits,” Franklin was definitely singing “propers,” as in “proper respect.” When William Safire asked her about it in 2002 for his New York Times “On Language” column, Franklin broke it down for the word maven: “I do say ‘propers.’ I got it from the Detroit street. It was common street slang in the 1960s. ‘My propers’ means ‘mutual respect’—what you know is right.”
Or was it, perhaps, a bit more than that? In a 1990 interview for 60 Minutes, Ed Bradley tried to draw out the Queen of Soul on the sexual undertones of that line, and the song in general. “Ask her a direct question about the throbbing sexuality of ‘Respect,’ her signature song, and Aretha is shocked,” Bradley explained in a voiceover. “Ask her about just what is meant by ‘Give me my propers when I get home’ or the phrase she coined, ‘sock it to me,’ and that church lady she was raised to be appears to close those big wooden doors against such indiscreet questions.”
In the interview, Franklin does indeed close the doors. When Bradley tells her he hears “a sexual feeling” in “give me my propers,” she stares him down, saying, “Mmm-hmm, that’s what it does for you.”
Safire, too, tried to raise the point when he talked to her in 2002 on a break from her concert tour. He had found some historical evidence—very far from Detroit street slang of the ’60s—to back up the idea that propers had a sexual meaning. In the 1909 book Passing English of the Victorian Era, J. Redding Ware included a cryptic entry for the word:
Propers (Low Class). Meaning refused—but thoroughly comprehended by the coster classes. Erotic.
The British slang lexicographer Jonathon Green, in his Green’s Dictionary of Slang, surmises that Ware was hinting at a meaning of “sexual intercourse,” and that the term may have been an abbreviated form of “a proper seeing-to.”
Safire had turned up this Victorian tidbit after one of his readers informed him that “give me my propers” represented a plea “for adoration and attention of a sexual nature.” But just as she did on 60 Minutes, Franklin shot down this suggestion, telling Safire, “The persons saying it has a sexual connotation couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Regardless of whether “propers” might be concealing something less than proper, the word has had a lasting impact on the lexicon, particularly when it got shortened to a single syllable: “props.” The clipped version showed up in print as early as 1990, in a Chicago Tribune profile of the rapper Roxanne Shante. “I was one of the first female rappers, but I’ve always gotten my props,” Shante said, explaining, “That means I get respect.”
Over the course of the ’90s, “props” exploded in popularity thanks to its widespread usage in hip-hop (often intensified as “mad props”). And in 2007, “props” finally made it into The Oxford English Dictionary, defined as “due respect; approval, compliments, esteem.”
The OED did not initially give Franklin props for her role in originating the word. In my capacity as an informal consultant to the dictionary, I suggested to the editors that the roots of “props” in Aretha’s “propers” should be noted. (Matt Kohl, formerly a language technologist at Oxford University Press, made a similar suggestion in a 2013 post for the Oxford Dictionaries blog.) While a revised entry was drafted in 2008 with the appropriate meaning of “propers,” the line from “Respect” did not get included in the OED’s online update—the earliest citation given for the word was from 1971.
After the news of Franklin’s death, I checked in with the OED editors to see what the story was with the seeming lack of respect for “Respect.” I figured that the fact that the “propers” line was an addition to the original could pose a problem, since it might not have appeared in an “official” transcription of the lyrics that could be consulted by the editors. Or could the long-standing mishearing of “propers” as “profits” have injected some ambiguity into the interpretation?
Transcribing audio, especially from songs, has posed an ongoing challenge for the OED, which has preferred the authority of written sources ever since editors and volunteer readers first worked to gather evidence for word usage in the 19th century. In a 2010 “On Language” column, I wrote about an exceptional case, where the OED accepted an early use of the expression “rock the mic” from a 1978 recording of a rap concert by Grandmaster Flash and the Four M.C.s, despite lacking a definitive transcription.
This time around, it turns out that human error was to blame. Katherine Martin, the head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press, told me that even though the OED’s editorial staff had been informed about the use of “propers” in “Respect,” “due to an oversight it wasn’t added at the time.” But there’s good news. “We’ve subsequently reviewed how OED quotes, cites, and dates song lyrics, and recently created a new policy for audio transcripts of this kind,” Martin says. “We will now be adding the 1967 quotation in an upcoming update to the dictionary.” Aretha will get her propers at last.