It’s not uncommon for words originally used as slurs to be reclaimed with pride by the targeted group. Queer was reappropriated by gay people, deplorable by Trump supporters, and Impressionist by 19th-century artists.
It’s much less common for a pejorative term to be reclaimed twice. Yet that’s what’s happened with based.
Based was in the news earlier this year after confrontations between pro- and anti-Trump groups in Berkeley, California. Kyle Chapman, a 41-year-old Trump supporter, was arrested at a rally in early March for hitting an Antifa protester over the head with a stick. Chapman’s fans dubbed him Based Stickman and began creating a legend around him. Chapman, who was released on bail, had already racked up a colorful rap sheet that included three felonies. He was arrested a second time on April 10.
Based Stickman regalia. (Image source.)
The stickman part of Based Stickman is obvious. But based has a more circuitous etymology.
According to a 2016 Slate article by Ben Matthis-Lilley, based was originally a truncation of basehead, a pejorative term for someone addicted to freebasing cocaine. Its first documented appearance was in a 1986 segment on PBS’s MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour:
MICHELS [voice-over]: On a major thoroughfare in East Oakland, three young women, none of them yet graduated from high school, pass the time.
TEENAGER: Everybody into cocaine nowadays. There's so many baseheads out here.
Based was reclaimed for the first time by rapper Lil B – born Brandon Christopher McCartney in Berkeley in 1989 – who titled his 2007 debut album Based Boys. In a 2010 interview with Complex magazine, Lil B explained his definition of based:
Complex: What's your definition of "based," because you say that with everything. What does that mean?
Lil B: Based means being yourself. Not being scared of what people think about you. Not being afraid to do what you wanna do. Being positive. When I was younger, based was a negative term that meant like dopehead, or basehead. People used to make fun of me. They was like, “You’re based.” They’d use it as a negative. And what I did was turn that negative into a positive. I started embracing it like, “Yeah, I’m based.” I made it mine. I embedded it in my head. Based is positive.
In 2012 Lil B released his first instrumental album, Choices and Flowers, under the alias (or alter ego) BasedGod. In 2014 he created an iPhone app, Basedmoji, “to have fun with your friends and family and celebrate the life of Lil B! I LOVE YOU!"
“Lil B is a particularly internet-friendly artist,” Matthis-Lilley wrote in Slate – he has more than a million Twitter followers – “and based became—in its positive incarnation—a common piece of online slang and a component of a popular meme.” “Thank You Based God” and “TYBG” were entered in Urban Dictionary as early as May 2011.
The final turn of the reclamation process began in during the 2014 Gamergate controversy, when, wrote Matthis-Lilley, “internet misogynists began calling conservative critic Christina Hoff Sommers ‘Based Mom’” because she’d argued against the feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian. By 2016, based had been embraced by white nationalists as well. (An early sign: the Thank You Based Putin Facebook page, “devoted to the War God of Russia,” that started in March 2014.) Today, there are dozens of pro-Trump, “populist conservative” Twitter accounts that incorporate “based” in their handles, including BasedSavannah, BasedCovfefe, BasedBikeRider, BasedConservative, and BasedPepe.
Meanwhile, Lil B is still the Based God. Kyle Chapman, free on bail once again, has amassed more than 28,000 Twitter followers since March 2017 as @BasedStickman_. And the conservative talk-radio host John Cardillo appropriates both based and woke in his Twitter profile.