John Singleton, who died Monday at 51, made his mark on Hollywood very early on, when his debut movie, Boyz n the Hood, became a massive hit in the summer of 1991. Singleton, who was 23 at the time, would become the youngest filmmaker ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director and the first African American to compete in the category.
Singleton also wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay, and his coming-of-age story set in South Central Los Angeles resonated with audiences at a time when gangsta rap was going mainstream, making the harsh realities of life in “the hood” part of the national conversation.
Singleton steeped his film in hip-hop culture, immediately evident from the title. Those in the know would have recognized Boyz n the Hood as a nod to the debut single of Eazy-E, “The Boyz-N-The Hood,” recorded in 1987 as the first release put out by Ruthless Records. The song was also included on the compilation album N.W.A. and the Posse, which introduced the gangsta-rap pioneers N.W.A. The writing credit for the song actually belonged to another member of N.W.A.: Ice Cube, who would launch his acting career in Singleton’s movie.
By adapting the title of the song for his movie, Singleton was putting on display not just hip-hop culture, but also hip-hop orthography. Such unconventional spelling is a stylistic choice that scholars have identified as a key signifier in the forging of an anti-establishment identity in rap music. In a 2001 article, Warren Olivo argued that rappers have deployed nonstandard spelling as a way of subverting the “socio-cultural and linguistic hegemony,” positioning hip-hop culture as “anti-society.” Erik Nielson similarly argued in a 2010 study of the 2Pac song “Can’t C Me” from the album All Eyez on Me that the respelling of words in rap music is a way to “evade the codification of an otherwise elusive and inherently protective art form.”
Hip-hop spelling is often used to represent the distinct phonological features of African American English. As Marcyliena Morgan has observed, the “spelling ideology” behind these choices may reflect such features as syllable reduction (as in aight for all right or Ima for I’m gonna). Representing the word in as n—as in The Boyz-N-the Hood—is an example of such a reduction. But writing boys as boyz is a different kind of choice. Because the word boys ends with a /z/ sound in standard English, the respelling doesn’t indicate a deviation from a pronunciation norm. Rather, as Geneva Smitherman and John Baugh have argued in the case of phat (a playful respelling of fat to mean excellent), this orthographic divergence is “not by chance linguistic error” but a conscious subversion of standard English that plays into hip-hop identity formation.
Interestingly, despite the transgressive force of the respelling that Singleton used for the movie title, the use of z in the place of s has a long history in written English. We could go all the way back to Shakespeare’s time, when there was a popular trend of creating profane oaths of the form “God’s X,” as in God’s blood or God’s death. (Gadzooks is conjectured to come from God’s hooks, referring to the hooks used in the crucifixion of Jesus.) These oaths were euphemized by removing God from them, with the result typically spelled as ’sblood, ’sdeath, and so forth. But in the variable spelling of early modern English, z often appeared instead, as when Shakespeare had the character Falstaff exclaim “Zbloud!” in Henry IV, Part 1.
Even as English orthography became more standardized, the z-for-s substitution persisted, often to indicate nonstandard dialects. This kind of “eye dialect” is meant to alert the reader to something unconventional, rather than a careful transcription of a speaker’s pronunciation. After all, when the plural or possessive ending -s is attached to a noun that ends in a vowel sound (such as boy) or a voiced consonant (such as dog), the s is typically pronounced as if it were a z anyway.
Consider, for instance, the bit of dialect spelling printed in a Missouri newspaper in 1900, “Boyz vill be boyz.” Using vill for will is apparently intended to approximate the accented English of a German speaker. But boyz in that context does not represent a different pronunciation—instead, it just looks different. (In fact, German-inflected English would be more likely to change the pronunciation the other way, with the /z/ sound shifting to /s/ through what linguists call “final devoicing.”)
Spelling reformers have long sought to apply logic to English orthography, to bring it more into line with the phonetics of speech. In 1906, when the crusade for spelling reform was at its peak (with such luminaries as Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie backing the effort), one newspaper advertisement for an Oregon clothier poked fun at the effort by writing the ad copy in “the Phonetic way,” changing “men’s and boy’s suits” to “menz and boyz suts.”
This kind of playful spelling took on new significance within the 1960s counterculture, especially in the music scene. Following the path of The Beatles, who changed a letter from beetles, many new bands tweaked the spelling of preexisting words, and that included changing the plural ending -s to -z. Thus, in 1966, a noisy band in New York City called themselves The Godz. Pittsburgh had The Jaggerz, and an Ohio band dubbed themselves The Boyz. (A hard-rock band in Los Angeles would also take the name The Boyz in the 1970s.) Meanwhile, some bands went further with unusual respellings, as when the British band Slade released their 1973 hit, “Cum on Feel the Noize” (later covered by Quiet Riot).
In the 1980s, R&B and funk acts (most famously Prince) used distinctive spelling for album and song titles. The “boyz” tradition was continued by an L.A.-based funk group called Skool Boyz. In the world of rap music, one of the biggest acts of the time was Heavy D & The Boyz, which put out its first release in 1987. After that, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, numerous other “boyz” emerged in hip-hop and R&B, most notably Philadelphia’s Boyz II Men (who took their name from the 1988 New Edition song “Boys to Men”).
While Singleton’s use of the letter z in Boyz n the Hood partook in this musical legacy, the same kind of respelling has emerged in other arenas of playful usage. Advertisers have used it for slogans—such as “Beanz Meanz Heinz,” a British tagline used by Heinz Baked Beans since the 1960s—or for product names, like the Trollz and Bratz dolls. As Leslie Savan observed in her book Slam Dunks and No-Brainers, since the ’90s, the z has been used to communicate a youthful edge, “to look hip-hop fresh,” though such appropriation has often flopped, such as when the Fox Family Channel launched the short-lived Boyz Channel and Girlz Channel in 1999.
Meanwhile, on the internet, the z-for-s substitution has been a hallmark of ironic leetspeak, as seen in such intentional misspellings as n00bz (for newbs, short for newbies”) or lulz (a variant of lols for laughs). While the -z ending may now seem rather played out, appropriate only for self-conscious parody, it’s worth remembering the summer of ’91, when Boyz n the Hood represented a jolt to the system, one administered by a young film director seeking to upset the norms, spelling included.