Behind the Dictionary

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What Turns Up When You Look Into "Turn Up"

As I was searching Twitter while writing last month's column on bae, I occasionally found tweets saying things like, "Gonna turn up tonight with my bae!" Now why would someone find it newsworthy to announce that they were simply going to appear somewhere? Of course, not everything people tweet is newsworthy, but still, why such excitement over simply showing up?

After a couple of tweets like that, I began to suspect that turn up might have a different meaning than the one I was thinking of:

To make its (or one's) appearance; to present itself (or oneself) casually or unexpectedly; to occur, appear, be discovered or encountered (as if exposed by turning something over, by turning face upwards, by turning the leaves of a book, etc.) (Oxford English Dictionary)

A search for just forms of "turn up" turned up similar examples, such as "We gonna turn up at prom." In other words, you're going to arrive at the prom casually or unexpectedly? Good luck with that, now that you've announced it to all your followers. Another tweet says simply, "I like turning up." In other words, you like showing up at places casually or unexpectedly? Although people like this do exist — I believe they're called creepers these days — I haven't heard this activity referred to as "turning up." Even without the casual or unexpected dimension, what's so interesting about just arriving at places?  

Urban Dictionary provided the definition that made sense out of these sentences. There were several, but the most complete, and the one with the most thumbs-up votes, was posted by a contributor with the handle of Jdazzle on July 13, 2013:

  1. Getting loose, being wild and potentially engaging in sexual activity ...
  2. Acting crazy due to consumption of large amounts of alcohol, marijuana, molly [MDMA] or other drugs

So there it was: another synonym for getting drunk or high. Jdazzle went on to provide some usage notes:

It can be used as [an adjective] where it is spelled "turnt up" instead of "turned up" as grammatical conventions would suggest. "Turnt up" is used to described the state of being wild and crazy like someone would be at a party.

With that tip, I searched Twitter again, this time for "turnt". The earliest tweet I found was one from December 2008:

football got u turnt up now huh lol

Before 2008, most of the tweets containing turnt were in German, where turnt is the third-person singular present tense of "do gymnastics." However, back on Urban Dictionary there's a definition specifically for turnt, postedby one Erica Peters in 2005, which agrees with Jdazzle's. The website Rap Genius, meanwhile, has turnt up in its database of rap lyrics as early as 1998, and just plain turnt from 1995, as you can see in this graph. (Note that the line for turnt automatically includes instances of turnt up, so you'll need to subtract the turnt up line from the turnt one.) Unfortunately, its collection of rap lyrics isn't searchable by date, so I don't know if the earliest examples are just ordinary meanings of turned but with a nonstandard spelling. Regardless of when turnt turned into a word in its own right, separate from turned, the Rap Genius graph shows that it started to catch on in 2008, which fits well with its first appearances on Twitter.

Last year, though, seems to have been a banner year for turnt. For example, it was last April that Tina Wells, whom you may remember from the bae column, set up her Vine account with the name of Too Turnt Tina. In May, the rising tide of rap and R&B songs featuring the word turnt, visible in the Rap Genius graph, caught the attention of the clickbait/pop-culture website Popdust, which posted a series of articles on the word. The first of them, "Everything You Need to Know About Turnt, This Year's Worst New Music Word," had this to say about the release of the song "Turnt," a collaboration between Beyonce Knowles, The-Dream, and 2 Chainz:

Let us ponder Beyonce's choice of title. This is the second "Turnt" reference we've got this spring, after Ciara's forthcoming "Super Turnt Up." And Ciara, for her part, seems intent on making "turnt" happen. As [music news website] Idolator noted, she used the word twice in the first 90s seconds of her 106th and Park interview.

So, odds are good that "turnt" will replace "ratchet" as music's new instantly ubiquituous slang word. This is, of course, very troubling. As a Popdust editor so memorably put it, "the word sounds like Medea saying 'taint.'"

They went on to embed in the article several music videos featuring the word turnt. A month later in June, they wrote a follow-up article about Miley Cyrus using it in her new release, "We Can't Stop":

Where do we stand right now with "turnt," the horrible word that is (maybe) about to take over culture as we know it? Here's where: Beyonce and The-Dream released a song about it. Ciara spends interviews trying really hard to make it happen. And now Miley Cyrus has dropped it in her new comeback single, "We Can't Stop".... That's three references, so we officially have a trend. "Turnt" is happening, you guys, and we're all powerless to stop it. Be sure to check this space for more updates on the word's unholy spread — all summer long.

True to their word, in July they posted another report, this time on Ciara's explanation of turnt during a talk-show interview:

Ciara's "Super Turnt Up" has mystified and befuddled us all summer. Fortunately, the "Body Party" crooner guested on Chelsea Lately last night and, after a round a questioning from host Chelsea Handler, treated viewers to an extended riff on the history and etymology of the phrase. Here's the transcript:

Chelsea: What is "Super Turnt Up"?

Ciara: The original term is "turnt up." I'm from Atlanta, we say, "I'm turnt up on this," "I'm turnt up," or "We're gonna go get turnt up tonight," blah blah blah.

Chelsea: Like, it just means, "I'm gonna go get..."

Ciara: Turnt up, yeah! There was no telling what you're gonna say.

Chelsea: I can guess what it says.

Ciara: Right, so you get turnt up. You get turnt up on love, you get turnt up on whatever. It's just super high energy. But now I added "super" to it, so "Super Turnt Up" is like taking it to a whole 'nother level.

Ciara seems to imply that turnt (up) originated in Atlanta; an Urban Dictionary entry says that it came from Los Angeles. But the real question isn't really where the turnt form came from; it's how the phrasal verb turn up gained its meaning of "get drunk, high, or just crazy." My guess is that it's related to the transitive turn up, as in turn up the volume, turn up the heat, turn up the music. As for the conversion of turned to turnt, that's just a matter of phonetics.

In African American English (AAE), word-final consonants are often devoiced, so that dug might sound like duck, or lab like lap. Or in this case, turned becomes turnt. In fact, the final devoicing of /d/ in AAE sometimes even goes a step further, with the /d/ turning into a glottal stop — the same catch in your voice that separates the syllables of uh-oh.

But why are we now seeing turnt spelled with a t at the end, when the spellings of other words aren't getting changed? The fact that turned up developed a distinct meaning in African American culture helps. Words or phrases that already exist in General American English, but which accrue strong connotations in African American culture, can cross back into General American with AAE spellings preserved to convey the more specific meaning. For example, baby mamma and baby daddy are just the AAE zero-possessive versions of baby's mamma and baby's daddy, but are now used in General American to refer to unmarried parents. An even closer parallel comes with the expression Oh, no X didn't!, which is sometimes written with didn't spelled "ditn't" and "di'int" to represent a glottal stop at the end of did. Spelled this way, the expression isn't so much a denial, as it is in General American, but a declaration of incredulity.

In addition to being a verb, turn up can also be a noun, meaning a party; i.e., an event where people might get turnt up. But whether you're talking turn up as a verb or as a noun, you should follow the advice of Jdazzle, who concluded his or her definition of turn up with some helpful advice: "It is not to be confused with the vegetable, the turnip, to which it shares some phonic similarities but is otherwise entirely unrelated."

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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.