Friday, July 11, 2014

Here's the etymology of "Turn Down for What"

Since "Turn Down For What" by DJ Snake and Lil' Jon is clearly the dance anthem of this sad yet very fun generation, I've had ample occasion to think about what it means. And I'm clearly not the only one.

Duh It's a Rhetorical Question

Ok, fine, we all know "turn down for what?" is a rhetorical question. Like, for what reason would I turn down, "turn down" meaning the opposite of getting "turnt," or "turnt up."

But to fully wrap my mind around where this phrase came from and why exactly it's so catchy and cool, I had to trace the origins of all its parts.

Let's turn up the breaking down business by breaking "Turn Down For What" down.

Turn down.

Throughout history, there have been so many things developed technology-wise to turn down. Google's book search for "turn down" showed that before lanterns, people expectedly only used the phrase to mean reject something for an alternate choice. Like, "I turned the boy down on our third date because he was too into the fitness subreddit." Or, "President Obama turned down Michelle Obama because she was too hot." Stuff like that.

Or, turn-down (or sometimes even turn down, without a hyphen) was often used as a noun. Like a "turn-down collar." But that's irrelevant, nouns are irrelevant here.

With the invention of heat and a lantern came the invention of to "turn" something "down." Then that translated into turning the radio or the television down in the 30's and 50's, respectively. 

By the end of the 20th century, there were numerous things you could turn down, if they were too loud or high. Your iPhone ringtone. The volume of your Nintendo. Your enthusiasm about something going viral. There were so many things to turn down that turning them up wasn't even exciting anymore. We had to do something - SOMETHING - to make turning something up an event to remember.

Pertinent Tangent: Turnt

(oh great, the two most tired idioms in pop culture right now, together, in one JPEG, with a mini icon of beer pong. Thanks, Google Image.)

In 2005, a girl named Erica Peters knew "turning up" was like, so snooze. So she got the cue somewhere to kick it up a notch. More specifically, she give IT a T at the end. On Urban Dictionary.

"Turnt" to Erica Peters, the first one to post about "turnt" in Mr. Urban Dick in good old 2005 meant:

"Horny, Drunk,f*cked up!! Crunk!!
Damn, I am all turnt on! or I am getting Turnt to night at the club!"

Well, "turnt on" was eventually foregone in favor of the more popular "turnt up," but 2005 had the right idea.

In my opinion, there are two reasons that "turned" might have gained its cooler, sluttier older sister, "turnt."

Turnt theory #1: It's southern dialect. Google book search shows any use of the word "turnt" before 2005 was purely a dialectical spelling to portray a southern character. 

This theory is fascinating to me because what makes a southern person so apt to replace an "ed" with a "t" in this case? Is it that they are purely making a mistake about the past tense of "turn?" Is there an element of definitiveness they subconsciously add to "turn" by adding the harsher "T" sound at the end, in order to connote that something has been fully turned? My guess it might have been a combination of both.

Turnt theory #2: It's a rhyming thing. "Turn" rhymes with "burn," and people say something has been "burnt" a lot. Something has been "turnt" sounds very similar. 

British English and American English have differed in the way they've historically used "burned" and "burnt." In the case of American English, people use "burnt" more often to describe an object that has been completely burned. Like, Americans would probably say "I ate a burnt piece of toast" before saying, "I burnt this piece of toast." So, in my opinion, adding a "T" to the end of "burn" connotes a more complete process of having been burned for good, which reflects its harsher sound. 

Which brings us back to "turnt." Turnt's structure closely follows that of the way most Americans use "burnt." We say something is turnt, something is getting turnt, something has been turnt (usually us). So we're the direct object; something fully turned us up. The structure of the language gives the impression of a loss of control usually involved with substance use, which is something that "getting turnt" totally means. 

Here are the conclusions I came to about turnt: It is cool because it's offers a curve ball in terms of confident ending annunciation,  and it is associated with calm and collected southern living.

(lol) (It's not accurate in any way, I just think it's funny.)

For What?

("FOR WHAAAAAT [am I locked in here]???? I'm white and fluffy!!!" it says. The only thing that would make this picture sadder is if it were a puppy.)

"For What" definitely lives in "Turn Down"'s shadow. But don't get yourself twisted: it's an irreplaceable part of the rhetoric. Lil' Jon could have written, "Why Would We Turn Down?" and where would we be today? Definitely ALL THE WAY turned down. And for what?

What's so cool about "For What?" It packs a two-syllable punch, that's for sure. It sounds like a kid whose mom asks him to clean his room and he's yelling back at her from a pile of dirty laundry. "FOR WHAT, MOM? No one comes in here except me anyway!" Then he masturbates and cries because it's true. 

For me, the coolest thing about "For What" is it's a structure not often used in English. And, indulge me here, it's used a lot in Russian. They have two ways of saying "Why?" in Russian: "Pochemu?" and "Za shto?" The first variant is more abstract, like, "What is the reason for this world!!!!!!111," and the second is literally asking, "For what?" like give me a tangible result of this thing.

Bottom Line

Although the EDM oscillation between verses and chorus thrusts the song forward, "Turn Down For What," which is derived from its much less popular polar opposite, "Turn Up For Many Reasons," has the anthem X-factor mostly because of its lyrical structure. The kind of structure that floats up out of the dust of tiny baby pop culture trending hashtivist angels, and then enters the hands of nerd bloggers like me, and then, after a few months, joins the ranks of historic passe decisions that Miley Cyrus stores away in the part of her butt cheeks that claps. 


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  2. Fantastic Breakdown. Reminded me of another fantastic breakdown: