The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “legit” legitimate?

Q: You use “legit” a lot as an adjective, most recently in your posting on “these ones.” I acknowledge the informal use of “legit” as an adjective (“Is this doctor legit?”), but what about its use as an adverb (“Yes, he got his MD legit”)?

A: We can’t find any legitimate reference that lists “legit” as an adverb, whether as a standard, informal, or colloquial usage.

We do, however, find the usage popping up on the Web. We googled “do it legit,” for example, and got more than 53,000 hits.

Interestingly, another wannabe adverb, “legitly,” is also showing up online, with 214,000 hits, but the usage hasn’t made it into any standard references either.

Do these newbies have legs? Only time will tell, but we find them clunky, and wouldn’t recommend either one.

As for the use of “legit” as an informal adjective, we agree with you. Yup, it’s legit! But our opinion isn’t unanimous.

The word is labeled “slang” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.)

But the Oxford English Dictionary is kinder to “legit,” labeling it as a colloquial abbreviation of “legitimate.”

By “colloquial,” the OED means “belonging to common speech; characteristic of or proper to ordinary conversation, as distinguished from formal or elevated language.”

In other words, you might use it in speech or informal writing, but not in a scholarly paper or a Supreme Court brief.

The word, which in its early days was a noun as well as an adjective, seems to have had its beginnings in stagecraft.

It was first recorded as a noun, in an 1897 issue of an American magazine, the National Police Gazette:

“Bob is envious of Corbett’s success as a ‘legit.’ It pained him to see Jim strutting through four acts of a real play.”

(We assume this OED citation is a reference to the heavywieght boxing champion James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, who began an acting career after he retired from the ring in 1893.)

And here’s an early use of the adjective, from Donald Shaw’s memoir London in the Sixties (1908):

“Scene shifters, stage carpenters, actors, everything and everybody strictly ‘legit’ should have the preference of guzzling and swilling to the memory of the immortal poet.”

In its earliest incarnations, “legit” meant “legitimate” in the sense of “normal, regular; conformable to a recognized standard type.”

For example, the phrase “legitimate drama,” the OED says, means “the body of plays, Shakespearian or other, that have a recognized theatrical and literary merit.”

The OED notes that “legitimate drama” was sometimes elliptically called “the legitimate,” and that a “legitimate” was an actor in legitimate drama.

We think that after over a century of more or less steady usage, “legit” deserves a better label than “slang.”

If it’s a “colloquial abbreviation” in the OED, it ought to get a promotion in the standard dictionaries.

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