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Ask Me--Origin of "Don't sleep on..."

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What's the origin of the suddenly ubiquitous "Don't sleep on. . ." as a swap for "don't underestimate"? It's everywhere in sports the last year or two--Jeff MacGregor, ESPN, via Twitter (@MacGregorESPN)

I had to somewhat sheepishly tell Jeff that I had never enountered the expression. And there went my best excuse for watching so much sports on TV, viz., that at least it gives me a total command of sports announcers' cliches. Checking the various databases, I saw, first, that he was right about the current popularity. Among hundreds of other examples, I found this line from a fantasy baseball blog: "Don't sleep on using your disabled list spots in the draft." (Don't know that that one means, either.)

Going back in time on the databases, one of the most recent non-sports uses I found was from a 2009 Renita Walker novel, What's Done in the Dark: “Don't sleep on that second CD. It was the shit too.” That led me to hypothesize that the expression originated in African-American vernacular. The hypothesis was borne out as I got in the linguistic wayback machine:

  • "'Don't sleep on Oprah,' said Columbia resident Jessica Jackson as she cheered wildly when Winfrey took the stage."--Jet, 2007
  • "Don’t sleep on me homey, I bring nightmares to reality." “Dreams,” a song by the rapper The Game, 2005
  • "Don't sleep on Lil' Fizz. He got a lil' flow."--Vibe, 2004
  • "Don't sleep on C. DeLores Tucker, 67, the head of the National Political Congress of Black Women and lately (along with former drug czar William Bennett) one of the biggest critics of 'gangsta rap.'"--Vibe, 1995
  • "Don't sleep on 'Go Wit The Flo,' a jazzy rap-singing cut on Full Force's Capitol long-player."--Billboard, 1992
 
The earliest use of the phrase with this connotation seemed to come from a November 1989 piece by John Leland in Spin magazine: “Early odds that Two Live Crew will by year's end release an alternative Green album As Environmentally Conscious as They Wanna Be, with songs like “Eat Pussy Not Irradiated Food Products,” are 1 in 238. Don’t sleep on it.”
 
I say "seemed" because it's not 100 percent clear exactly what Leland, currently a writer at the New York Times, meant by the phrase. He and I have a mutual friend, so in a Woody Allen-Marshall McLuhan moment (see the video below if you don't get the reference), I e-mailed Leland and asked him. He responded, "'Don't sleep on XXXX' was common hip hop parlance at the time, and it had a bit of a competitive or warning edge to it: Don't forget about XXXX or it'll rise up and bite you."
 
And the 1989 Spin reference? "If you tortured me," Leland wrote, "I couldn't remember writing that."
 
Well, I will give him the benefit of the doubt and, until informed otherwise, will name John Leland the first print user of metaphorical "Don't sleep on."
 
 

 

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