Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Down With That

Posted by Elyse Bruce on November 13, 2014

When someone says they are down with that, or down with it, this means they are in agreement with, or have knowledge of, what is being said or done.  The idiom saw a resurgence in popularity in the nineties thanks to rap and hip hop, however, its popularity in the seventies and in jazz circles cannot be overlooked.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel of May 28, 2003 published an OpEd piece by Maureen Dowd titled, “Bushies Get Down And Dirty” where she talked about George W. Bush and his associates, whom she referred to as the then-President’s posse.  The article began with this introduction to the piece:

By rolling over Iraq, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld hoped to deep-six the 60s.  President Bush was down with that.  He never grooved on the vibe of the Age of Aquarius anyway.

Over at Wordsmith.com, a transcript of a chat held on February 6, 2008 with author of eight books and hundreds of articles, reviews, and chapters in books, Seth Lerer (he was also a professor at Stanford University at the time) had Seth Lerer use the idiom in a response.  When user Bellingham asked the question as to how his generation of college students would know if their use of language was correct, Seth Lerer replied:

As long as they know the rules when they’re in my class, I’m, as they say, down with that.

In the January 1972 edition of Ebony magazine the idiom was used as part of a quote on page 107, as part of the article by Bill Rhoden, “Pros Donate Talent To Help Black Youth.”  The article covered the story about the first annual 21st Century Professional Basketball Tournament held in Madison Square Garden the previous summer that was produced and sponsored by a black-founded-and-operated philanthropic organization that focused its efforts on economic development and education.

Buffalo’s Randy Smith, a former NSSFNS [National Scholarship Service For Negro Students] recipient, said he was determined to make the tournament, with or without his club’s blessings.  “That’s how most of the players felt,” said Smith.  “The tournament is designed to help black youngsters, and anytime there is something I can do to help the cause, hey, I’m down with it.”

The “Jazz Lexicon” by Robert S. Gold, and published in 1957, pegs the expression to 1935 although no proof is provided to substantiate that specific date.  The “Jazz Lexicon” does, however, have this to say about the jazz musician’s slang from the depression era.

The jazz slang speaker’s aloofness is tacitly justified by his feeling that only those who are down with the action ( aware of what is going on ) should have access to the speech of those who have paid their dues (suffered an apprenticeship in life generally and in the jazz life in particular.)

A definition for the idiom is found in the 1944 edition of Dan Burley’s book on page 15 of his “Original Handbook of Harlem Jive” which does, however, substantiate the assertions made in the “Jazz Lexicon.”

That being said, the word down with the sense of being aware dates back to 1812 as found in the “Flash Dictionary” by J. H. Vaux.  The dictionary states that down is sometimes synonymous with aware, and includes the many ways in which down makes reference to being aware, including, but not limited, to this example.

To put a person down to any thing, is to apprize him of, elucidate, or explain it to him.

It could then be said that someone who is down with that information, is one who has knowledge of the subject matter, and he will either be in agreement or disagreement this information.

Indeed, this is true, as evidenced by the comment in Sporting Magazine edition XXXIX published in 1812 where the following comment is found on page 285.

He supposed he was down (had knowledge of it).

The 1898 edition of “The English Dialect Dictionary” compiled by Joseph Wright, M.A., Ph.D., D.C.L., Deputy Professor of Comparative Philology at the University of Oxford claimed the use of the word down meaning to be aware is found in the 1811 edition of “Lex Balantronicum.”

For the spirit of the idiom to be found in 1811 indicates that the sense of the idiom was used in the late 1700s, and that is proved by its inclusion in Joseph Pearson’s “Political Dictionary” published in 1792 which “contains original anecdotes faithfully collected from his posthumous papers by two of his literary friends.”  You see, in this dictionary, the word down is also used in the sense of being aware.

So, being down with anything has been around for far longer than most of us would have thought.  That’s cool to know because Idiomation is down with that.

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