Wednesday, June 19, 2013

African American Vernacular English: What "Killing It" Means & How It Got Those Slang Meanings

Edited by Azizi Powell

Latest Revision -September 12, 2017

This is Part I of a two part series on the African American derived slang meanings & uses of the phrases "killing it" and "killed it".

Part I provides definitions for the American slang phrases "killing it" and "killed it". Synonyms & antonyms are given for these phrases and I share my speculations about why "killing it" and its synonyms came to be used that way.

Click for Part II.

Part II provides examples of "killing it"/"killed it" and its synonyms that are used in selected YouTube comments about Hip-Hop artist Notorious Big's (Biggie Smalls)' performance on Jamaican Dancehall Reggae artist Supercat's 1993 remix of his song "Dolly Me Baby".

Disclaimer- I'm not a linguist. Nevertheless, I'm interested in how words & phrases have different meanings among populations in the same country or in among different populations throughout the world during the same period of time. I'm also interested in how the meanings of words & phrases may change over a period of time and how clusters of slang terms may have the same or similar meanings.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric & cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

"Killing it" = doing something very very well

Synonyms = murdered [it], ripped [it], assaulted [it], crushed [it]
(as exemplified in selected YouTube comments that are found in Part II of this series).

Also, "tore it up", "nailed it", "aced it"

Antonyms = "ruined", "destroyed", "really messed up"

However, note that the antonym "destroyed" can also be used to convey that a person "killed it" (did something very very well).

[Given in no preferential order] What does "killin it" mean?

Best Answer - Chosen by Asker
"it depends on what they're talking about. but it often means the are doing a good job. he's killling it means he's doing great."
Hamlet , 2010

"it means like he's beast at whatever he's doing"
- ooooooh SNAP! , 2010

“verb - to generally be high performing or do a task well.”
The other definitions for "kill it" that are given on that page don't apply to the particular slang usage that is the focus of this post.

“verb: Killin it be doing something very good
john was killin it all day long in the competition"
byalexJul 16, 2004
The other definitions for "kill it" that are given on that page don't apply to the particular slang usage that is the focus of this post.

Question: "What does "killed it" mean?

Like in youtube videos in the comments people would say "Lil' Wayne killed it" or "Drake killed this song". I wasnt sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing. Thanks so much!"
Emma, 2010

1. "Definitley is a good thing :) Killed it, kinda like, Nailed it or did it perfectly.
Jennifer, 2010
2."I think it depends on the rest of the sentence before deciding if it's good or bad. Like for example, "I'm my opinion they killed the cartoons when they made the Avatar the last air bender movies." That would be a bad 'killed it'. I'm saying that they ruined the cartoon with the movie. But if I said, "Dude I totally killed that test!" That would be good, because I'm saying that I did great on the test or I think I killed it. Hope this helps!"
-SemiFrug, 2010
3. "It can mean 2 different meanings. One meaning is to have ruined something and the other means to have done something really well.
Example 1:
Person 1: Wow this song is sick!
Person 2: Yeah, the artist KILLED it!

Example 2:
Person 1: I did a cover for the song Beat It by Michael Jackson. Do you like it?
Person 2: Wow, …. You killed the song man...
?- 2010
The sentences given in the first example used the positive, highly complimentary meaning of "killed it" which is the focus of this post.

SYNONYMS FOR THE TERM "KILLED IT" [Updated: November 24, 2015]
From Standard American English:
PERFECTED IT - doing something flawlessly, impeccably

NAILED IT - same as above

From African American English
"to completely destroy and embarrass someone lyrically in a freestyle battle or on a track."

Whyte Out murdered his competition on 106th and Park's Freestyle Fridays
by Nick D Jun 4, 2003
However, it should be noted that in the YouTube video comments about Biggie Smalls' "I Love It When You Call Me Big Poppa" rap [which is the focus of Part II of this series, the lyrics & Biggie's performance are the subject of the infinitive phrase "killed it" and not Biggie's competitors or collaborators [the other persons who are heard in that remix].

It's almost as if that performance art [or that athletic task]
is anthropomorphized and challenges the performer or the athlete to "bring it" [do the best that he or she can in a competition to see who has what it takes to win out in the end.] When the performer or the athlete succeeds in wringing all he or she can from that performance or that athletic competition, he or she can be said to have "killed it" [with "it" being the performance or the athletic competition, or any other challenging task].

Perhaps, the word "murder" is also used because if something is done flawlessly, there's nothing left to do. The performer has taken that art to the highest level it can go. After that it explodes or implodes on itself, and then exist no more -or exist in another form or forms. In doing so, that performer can be said to have "murdered" or "killed" that performance.


1. "going all out during a party, so hard that you literally rip it."
-jimmy dean's eggs Dec 28, 2010
This definition isn't clear since the word being defined is used.

The other definitions given on that page don't apply to the slang usage which is the focus of this page.

1. It's meaning is that everyone involved has done everything possible to guarantee that nothing goes wrong, but no one is completely sure what will happen and the only way to find out is to activate the process. There is always a measure of uncertainty prior to "let it rip."

There is a saw blade called a rip saw that is used to cut wood with the grain. Perhaps that is where the expression "let it rip" came from.
-Bruce, 3rd February 2005, 10:58 PM

"I Googled and apparently it has something to do with moving at such great speed that clothing becomes ripped". [link given is no longer viable].
-Kevin R, 23rd September 2007, 11:20 AM
The word being defined is again used in the definition. However, I think it's clear that the meaning for the word "ripped" in that sentence is "torn".

The African American/Hip Hop slang phrase "ripped it" can refer to "ripping something into shreds" and in so doing "killing it". "Ripping a performance [into shreds]" could mean that you "broke it down" to its very core. Because that performance was taken apart [and put together] to its very essense, it can be said to be killed, and -at the same time-said to be at thee hight of its "aliveness". the most 0erbrokibeeIn so doing, you "killed" what you broke

It also occurs to me that "rip it" is an updated form of "let it rip". "Let it rip"/"rip it" carry the connotation of "going all out [going "hard"]. Because the performer "went hard", (was intense but cool & in control; put himself or herself at risk, put himself or herself wholely in that performance, he or she "nailed" ("killed") that performance.
For what it's worth, I haven't found any uses of the term "ripped it" as a synonym to "killed it" in several 2015 YouTube video discussion threads in which numerous commenters use the term "killed it", a few commenters use the term "slayed it" and "murdered it" and a few commenters describe the person as "a beast".


a word used when you dominate or do really well on something. also used when you defeat an opponent.

-Dude, I slayed that history test!

-How'd you do in that Madden game against Gavin?
--I totally slayed him, it wasn't even close.

by chicken man1212 September 07, 2007

The other definitions given on that page don't apply to the slang usage which is the focus of this page.

Origin 1990s ? = a person who is exceptionally good at what he or she does; someone who "kills" [does a very good job] at what he or she does.

[Revised 09/15/2017]

In the initial publication of this post I guessed that the vernacular use of the word "killed" to mean doing something very very well"* dates from the 1990s. However, I don't have any documentation for that guess.

It occurs to me that the meaning of the "killing it" idiom is very similar to meaning of "mic drop" - i.e. that someone does something so well that there is no need for anyone else to try to do better. The challenge or the competition is over because what was done can't be beat. In that sense, the word "it" refers to "the competition".

However, in the idiom "She's killing it", He murdered it", or "They nailed it", the word "it" refers to whatever action or performance that is being done or that was done so well.

I can't speculate on how this idiom started, but my guess is that the vernacular idioms that mean "did something very very well" such as "tore the house down"; "tore it up", "nailed it", and "aced it" were used before "killed it".

Over time, African Americans changed what vernacular terms were popular with us for conveying excellence. While we changed which vernacular superlatives were "in" with us, mainstream society i.e. White folks retrained the old African American originated terms longer. Although we changed the words, we kept the same connotations: i.e. We went from something or someone being "hot", to "smokin", to "dynamite", to "the bomb", to "fire!" (which was also represented by a flame icon on certain YouTube discussion threads). All these vernacular terms and images conveyed/convey excellence. And I believe that all of these "hot"/"dynamite" terms greatly influenced the vernacular "killed it" ("murdered", "slayed") idioms.
Here's some thoughts that I had on this subject which were written for the initial 2013 publication of this post:

1. The United States is a violent nation.
Given the nature of this nation, the complimentary use of violent terms shouldn't be unexpected.

2. Being "hard" (tough, cool but in control) and being a risk taker (adventurer, high stakes gambler) are highly valued in African American/Caribbean originated Hip-Hop Culture and in American culture in general.

Given the high value that is placed on "being hard", it's not surprising that there is a preference in those cultures for violent terminology and terminology that praises success which is achieved during high stakes, risky circumstances.

3. African American Vernacular English has a tradition of applying counter-culture (opposite) definitions for certain standard English words (such as the word "bad" meaning "very good).
"Sick" or "ill" are two other examples from Hip Hop culture of two standard English words that have been given counter culture definitions. Since at least the 1990s, something that is very good is "sick". The word "ill" seems to be used now more frequently than "sick" but carries that same counter cultural meaning.

Something or someone who is "ill" can die. However, "killed", "murdered", "assaulted", "crushed" refer to willful acts and not something that happens naturally. People have to exert themself to kill, and the use of that term & similar terms as high compliments imply that the person whose performance "killed" ("murdered"; "assaulted") (or who killed his performance) didn't do so without exerting some effort to "nail" (perfect) that performance, even though it might have looked easy to do.

4. "Killing it" may be a progression that comes from the African American English meanings given to "dynamite" and "the bomb".

The slang meaning of both of those terms -something is "dynamite" or "the bomb" - refers to something that is very good. However, in standard English, dynamite & a bomb can kill.

5. The use of the words "monster" and "beast" as referents for people who go beyond what ordinary humans do (such as people who excel in their artistic or athletic performances.

There are very clear connections between a monster or beast & killing something or someone.

This completes Part I of this series.

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