There are those of us who lend thought to an original style and there are those of us who accept a style preordained. In the world of fashion, the latter wear black tights and Ugg boots. In the linguistic realm, the former say ‘ill’.
Rest assured, I am not a particularly stylish guy. When I came to UCSB, I purchased a navy blue sweatshirt and I wear it almost daily. I listen to folk and tribal music and I study comparative literature. Still, every once in awhile, in reaction to something so cool it approaches the sublime, I let fly one of my favorite words.
Now, ‘ill’ has a few definitions. Some deal with sickness: After eating pork, Derek felt ill. Others with negativity: Dare you speak ill of me? Hostility, too, can be conveyed: I harbor ill will like Santa Barbara harbors boats. The list goes on. These are formal definitions and they are fun. But ‘ill’ is an ambitious word, and it has found its way into common parlance. This is not an uncommon phenomenon. Think ‘fly’ or ‘sick’.
Enter Beastie Boys. Licensed to Ill hit in 1986 and if ‘ill’ was used before this, I do not care to know. It is the same ‘ill’ that we hear on the dirty, dusty streets from Tuesday night to Saturday. Yes, ‘ill’ to the Beastie Boys and to the revelers of Isla Vista denotes a certain state of mind. You know what I mean. This definition, however, is not the one to which I am partial.
Let’s talk Nas: When Illmatic dropped, the world shook. Doubtless, it is an awesome and terrifying album, but it does not simply boast an aggressive flow over calm production. No, Illmatic marks a different definition of ‘ill’ in slang; that is, synonymous with what is cool. And here is ‘ill’ in its sweetest and purest form.
Forgive me, for I cannot offer a scene fitting of the adjective. Such is my weak mind. Who can do justice to the first time he heard the Ninth? Who can describe a love so deep it needs not of spoken word? Who can pen the very image of God the Awesome and Almighty? No, my words would be as pebbles and sand at the feet of mountains.
As I see it, ‘ill’ denotes cool, but the two are not always equivalent. The reason is simple. For an occurrence to be worthy of ‘ill’, it must have taken me by surprise. But perhaps ‘surprise’ is too weak. It must be utter and total. The possibility of the occurrence must never have lit upon my mind. I must be blindsided by cool. It is this crucial element that rises ‘ill’ over all other such things.
I hold it self-evident that the power of a word can be diminished in proportion to its repetition. As of now, ‘ill’ has not lost its power. I consciously select ‘ill’ and I remember when and why I did so. But here is the paradox: These memories influence its definition. As more is deemed ‘ill’, the definition becomes increasingly inclusive; and so fell ‘cool’. ‘Ill’ is a fly word. We are wise to use it selectively, lest, like the gates of Babylon, it too should fall.