Another meaning for Dope

By Maeve Maddox

This headline on Buzzfeed caused me to do a double-take:

The 4 Dopest Quotes From Ruth Bader Ginsburg On Marriage Equality

Initially, I thought the article so headed would list quotations considered by the writer to be especially misguided or stupid (i.e., “dopey”). As I read further, I realized that the writer admired Associate Justice Ginsberg’s opinions as expressed in the quotations. The word dopest was intended as a compliment.

The word dope has a long and checkered history in English.

In its original use, dope referred to a thick liquid or semi-fluid used as an article of food or as a lubricant. The word is thought to derive from Dutch doop, “a dipping” or “a sauce.” The Dutch verb doopen means “to dip.”

Other meanings related to the gooey nature of dope include or have included:

A preparation, mixture, or drug which is not specifically named.

A varnish applied to the cloth surface of early airplanes to strengthen and keep them taut.

A substance added to gasoline or other fuel to increase its efficiency.

Opium, “especially the thick treacle-like preparation used in opium-smoking.” US speakers extended this use of dope to include stupefying drugs and narcotics in general.

A medical preparation given to a racehorse for the purpose of affecting its performance.

Various figurative meanings have become attached to dope:

Information, especially on a particular subject or of a kind not widely disseminated or easily obtained.

Information, a statement, etc., designed to gloss over or disguise facts; flattering or misleading talk.

Something designed to deceive or bamboozle; a fraudulent design or action; a piece of deception or humbug.

A stupid person, a simpleton, a fool.

Dope is also used as a verb to mean “apply or to administer dope in one of its senses.”

The use of dope as an adjective entered English slang in the 1980s, by way of rap music:

1981 J. Spicer Money (song) in L. Stanley Rap: the Lyrics (1992) 301 “Yo, man, them boys is dope… This record is dope.” (OED)

As for the word dopest used in the quotation about Justice Ginsberg, it is a slang expression meaning, “sickest, coolest, tightest, most awesome.” It is not standard usage and does not convey a positive connotation to speakers of standard English.

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12 Responses to “Another meaning for Dope”

  • Dan Lafreniere

    Hi Maeve. In sports (both amateur and professional) “doping” refers to using illegal performance enhancing drugs (or other substances). It is often used to describe the tactics used by professional cyclists (remember Lance Armstrong?) to cheat in competitions. “Blood doping” is the method in which athletes re-infuse their own blood prior to a competition to “to increase one’s red blood cell mass, which allows the body to transport more oxygen to muscles and therefore increase stamina and performance.” (WADA)

  • Elysia Brenner

    I think you’re really underestimating how widely used this term (with this meaning) is in the US! It absolutely conveys a positive connotation to this speaker of standard English. 😉

  • karen

    Back in the 60’s my grandmother used to ask for dope for her ice cream, which she meant chocolate syrup, but my cousins and I would laugh because we knew it as a word used by the hippies for drugs.

  • venqax

    The sports usage of the term is simply an extension of the meaning cited:
    “A medical preparation given to a racehorse for the purpose of affecting its performance.”

    Horses, cyclists, baseball players, same things.

    I am around college campuses regularly and I have heard the term used in the “positive” sense, but very seldom. I think it is safe to say it is not standard in any way so it wouldn’t be a safe bet that an SAE speaking audience would understand you if you used it.

  • ApK

    Semiconductor components like transistors are made by combining layers of semiconductor material like silicon that have ‘doped’ to have different electrical properties. I suppose this is an extension of that “unnamed preperation” usage? Or maybe an analog to the varnish applied to airplane cloth?

  • Cygnifier

    When I was an undergrad at Duke University (Durham NC) back in the mid-70s, the soda fountain on West campus was known as the Dope Shop. This name had begun at some point prior to 1920 with the first soda shop on East campus. Back in the time in the South, it was common to call soda “dope” (the other option in the South was just to call any soda “Coke” regardless of its brand name). The Duke archives suggest that this was perhaps from a belief that Coke had cocaine in it. I was disappointed, for tradition’s sake, when the name was dropped in the 80s with the building of the new Student Union, but of course by then on college campuses the word “dope” had come to be mostly associated with marijuana.

  • Kim Siever

    I have to agree with Elysia. This usage of dope has not only been around for several decades, it is well known among at least 3 generations. I would venture to say that the majority of the people reading that headline on Buzzfeed would have no issues with interpreting its meaning.

  • Kim Siever

    Furthermore, while dope may have first appeared in writing in rap music in the early 1980s, it had been in usage verbally long before then. Rap music language (especially in the 1980s) reflected slang in the culture the artists grew up in.

  • Elysia Brenner

    Cygnifier, Coca-Cola does still use cocaine leaves, if no longer the active part of the drug itself. 😉

  • Roberta B.

    From a gooey mixture to something pleasantly stimulating?
    It’s just another counterculture term that probably will fall out of favor when that hint of mainstream usage becomes evident and then resurface when it becomes cool again – like saying something is “neato,” “spiffy,” or “fly” – still used, but with wavering frequency depending on its “hipness.” (Both “hip” and “cool” disappeared for a while, but have made a big time comeback as mainstream, for now…………trending towards overtones of parody.)

  • David Knuttunen

    “It is not standard usage and does not convey a positive connotation to speakers of standard English.” Really? This slang usage dates AT LEAST from the 1960s, and is probably older than that. Don’t be a square. LOL.

  • Deborah HH

    I’m not surprised “dope” now means good. This is from the same kids who call a knitted watch cap a beanie.

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