‘It’s Giving’: A Gift to Language

This weeks Good Word brings metaphor to everyday conversation.

An illustration of a man in a crossword-puzzle vest working on a crossword at his computer
Araki Koman

Sign up for Caleb’s newsletter here.

The first time I heard the phrase It’s giving, I admit that I was mystified. A friend showed me a pre–Met Gala Instagram post by the pop star Camila Cabello: a picture of her face with small circles of makeup next to her eyes, each a different reddish shade, to which she had given the caption, “It’s giving … dots.” I had so many questions, mainly: What does it mean to give dots? With the sub-questions: What is doing the giving—her face? What’s being given—the dot shapes? And, finally: To whom are they being given—us, her followers?

As is the case with oodles of now-mainstream slang, It’s giving ___ filtered into the lexicon from ball culture, arising from sources like RuPaul’s Drag Race, Paris Is Burning, and Black Twitter. This is the same linguistic pathway that gave us yasss queen, serving realness, that’s tea, throwing shade, gagging, even legendary—phrases originating within queer communities of color, now freely used, for better or worse, by straight white people (and many others, of course) to give their language emphasis, dynamism, and play. American English relies on the linguistic innovation of its subcultures to maintain its vitality. Thus, what begins as a powerful, instinctual act of communicative creativity within a marginalized community inevitably ends up being misused by Camila Cabello in a viral Instagram post before the world’s largest annual gathering of the cultural elite.

To be fair to Camila, the construction is unusual. I’m used to seeing the phrase to give with a subject, a direct object, and an indirect object to describe a transaction: “I’m giving my dad a tie,” for example. You know exactly who’s doing the giving, what’s being given, and to whom it’s being given. Without the supporting players in that sentence, the phrase doesn’t really make sense. One wouldn’t say, “I’m giving my dad” or “I’m giving a tie.” But It’s giving ___ miraculously does away with both. The verb becomes impersonal (the “it” that’s doing the giving could really stand for anything—a person’s look, a house, a movie), and it’s not really giving it to anyone in particular. To give starts to mean to give off, as in vibes, another omnipresent slang word connoting a level of almost spiritual understanding. So when her Met Gala date, the pop star Shawn Mendes, in another piece of audiovisual pre–Gala documentation, says, “It’s giving Cher,” he’s saying, “Looking at you gives me the feeling I get when I look at Cher.”

Meanwhile, his (now ex) girlfriend, Camila, was misusing the phrase. Her makeup wasn’t giving dots … it was dots. The phrase should create a metaphor: This thing I’m referring to isn’t exactly this, but it’s giving this. It would be like looking at a lamp and saying, “This reminds me of a lamp,” or watching the movie The Boss Baby and saying, “I’m getting Boss Baby vibes from this movie.”

In other words, it’s a great phrase that requires some savvy to use well. That’s why I wanted to put it in a crossword. The Camila Cabello meme, in all its cringey glory, represented the pivotal moment in the evolution of the phrase. It had “surfaced.” It was either the beginning of It’s giving having common meaning or the end, depending, perhaps, on your feelings about linguistic gentrification. It’s such a simple and evocative turn of phrase, and you can hear “____ vibes” or “big ___ energy” only so many times before you get sick of them, even used ironically. But in enshrining the phrase in a crossword, I wanted to pay tribute to its origins. That’s why I ended up going with the clue “Phrase from drag-ball culture that might introduce an energy reading.”