Assembling the Oxford Dictionary of African American English

The Oxford English Dictionary is what’s called a historical dictionary. Along with definitions, it includes evidence of a word’s origins and notes how its usage and meaning have changed over time. James Murray, the Scottish philologist who left school at fourteen and, in 1879, began to assemble what would become the O.E.D., housed some two million quotations and draft entries in a metal shed he called the Scriptorium.

Last summer, a team of linguists and lexicographers from Oxford and researchers from Harvard began a new project, the Oxford Dictionary of African American English. No Scriptorium this time, but they have been using archives, language databases, other dictionaries, slave narratives, novels, the popular press, and social media. (It’s almost certainly the first dictionary whose editors regularly consult Black Twitter.) Oxford provided nearly twelve hundred existing entries for words that may have originated in African American English, such as “cray” (adj., 2006, “crazy. Also reduplicated as ‘cray cray’ ”) and “shade” (n., 1990, “contempt, disapproval, or disrespect, especially when expressed obliquely”). The group would be revising definitions and seeking evidence that words had appeared earlier than the O.E.D. had been able to cite. The project’s three linguists met recently to compare notes.

Among the team were Anansa Benbow and Bianca Jenkins. Benbow had produced the Black Language Podcast, about slang terms, grammar, and linguistics. (Sample episode: “Defund the Grammar Police.”) Jenkins did graduate work at the University of South Carolina that used language and syntax to identify Twitter accounts falsely purporting to be run by Black users. (“One example is what linguists call ‘habitual ‘be,’ ” Jenkins said. “Using ‘be’ to talk about actions that you do continually—‘I be doing this.’ A lot of tweets didn’t understand how that structure worked.”) They were joined by Jennifer Heinmiller, the dictionary’s executive editor and a co-author of the Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English (“doomawhichit,” n., “an object whose name is momentarily not recalled”).

First up: “do-rag” (n., “a piece of fabric tied closely around the head, originally to protect and maintain a hairstyle (especially one that is chemically processed) and later as part of an individual’s fashion”). The O.E.D. dates the word to 1964, which Benbow discovered was way too late. “We have more than enough evidence that, from the thirties to the sixties, men would use them to hold chemically processed hairdos while they slept,” she said. “I came across this article about the person who thought he ‘invented’ the do-rag, in the seventies. The father of the do-rag—he calls himself that.” She continued, laughing, “I have to be the one who says, like, ‘Sir, you didn’t invent this!’ ”

“Did you see anything that spelled it with a D-U?” Jenkins asked.

“I’m going to need you to step out of the vehicle, walk in a straight line, pose, and then walk in the other direction.”

Cartoon by Jason Adam Katzenstein

“I found D-O, D-U. I found it spelled D-E-W,” Benbow said. “Like the ‘dew’ is sweat, and the point of the do-rag is to keep that out of your hair?” She sounded skeptical. “I think it makes sense for D-O to be our spelling. The ‘do’ meant ‘hairdo.’ Like, it protected your ’do and it was just a rag.”

Later, Benbow brought up “cakewalk.” All preferred a more nuanced definition than the O.E.D.’s. “They have ‘A contest in which participants compete to perform the most graceful, dignified, intricate, or amusing walk, usually to music, with a cake as the prize,’ ” Benbow said. “A big difference is beginning with enslaved Black people. I think that’s very important to the history.” The earliest evidence of the term, from around 1863, described an entertainment for plantation owners performed by Black slaves, whose movements mimicked the formal dances of white society. “There’s a debate about whether or not the enslavers knew they were being mocked,” Jenkins said.

Next: “grill” (n., “a removable or permanent dental overlay worn as a fashion statement and typically made of silver, gold, platinum, or another metal”). Some linguists have suggested that the term originated with dentists in the Caribbean and the rural South. “I think ‘grill’ is specific to fashionable use,” Benbow countered. She noted that usage of the word grew when Ludacris and members of Outkast started wearing them.

Other word origins were less clear. Jenkins brought up “bussin” (adj., “especially of food: impressive, excellent; tasty, delicious”). “Our etymology is unclear right now, but we have a few possibilities,” she said. “First being that it originates from ‘bursting,’ and there was kind of like a phonological process happening there. And then there’s also the idea that it was originally a Geechee term.”

The team will present its progress later this month. They have more than two hundred draft entries, including “shout” (n., “a spiritual ritual involving a dance where participants follow one another . . . clapping their hands to accompany chanting and singing . . . and often conclud[ing] with participants experiencing a state of spiritual ecstasy”). Looking through church publications and shuttered newspapers, Benbow and her colleagues sometimes feel that their work is a conversation with the past. Other times, she said, “I’m just hoping Black people decades ago wrote this down.” ♦

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