The Rap Catchphrase With Metaphysical Roots

How “it’s lit” captured an era’s pop-culture energy

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What does it feel like to be at an amazing party? How do you communicate that without killing the vibe? The ecstasy of a rollicking good time is one of those experiences that threatens to transcend the faculties of language. Who wants to talk when you’re having a blast? You need a phrase that rolls off the tongue—one that captures the rhythm and fervor of the giddy throng, that describes the revelry without interrupting it … a phrase like … “It’s lit!”

Best known as the signature ad-lib (a rap catchphrase) of Travis Scott, “It’s lit” spread like wildfire through rap music and into mainstream language in the 2010s. Although light’s past participle has been used in American slang to indicate inebriation as early as 1899—and in rap music as early as 1997—Scott’s “lit” took on a deeper meaning. “It’s lit,” “It’s litty,” and even just “lit” came to communicate a profoundly positive excitement beyond substance abuse. Calling something “lit” attributes the referent with a fiery, magnetic energy, and it soon became the highest compliment one could give a party, a show, or even a meal.

The word has always had connotations that go beyond the physical act of illumination. As far back as the Old English leht, the word for brightness also contained the deeper meaning of metaphysical radiance of spirit. In the poem “Juliana,” by the ninth-century poet Cynewulf (one of only four poets of Old English whose work has survived to the present), Juliana’s father describes her as “minra eagna leoht”—“the light of my eyes.” Practically from birth, the word was a metaphor for a sublime inner state far more meaningful than photons—something, for poets from Cynewulf to Scott, tantamount to truth, beauty, and even the soul itself.

And who can blame them? Light is a mysterious yet vital part of whatever the heck is going on with all of us down here on this crazy planet—just ask Prometheus. God might as well have said: “Let it be lit.” But our Tuesday clue dared not try to demean the sentiment with the spoken word—“🔥🔥🔥” meaning, maybe.