On the list of things black people don’t get enough credit for, my favorite one is the shaping of American language.
Words and phrases are moving continuously from ghetto vernacular to Standard American English. Ten years ago, a few rappers started saying “bling bling.” Then athletes like Shaq were saying it. Then daytime talk-show hosts like Ricki Lake were saying it. Eventually, you saw the word “bling” in the political pages of the New York Times.
That tickles me.
When I was coming up, only black folks would say “from the get-go.” Now, only white folks say it.
“Mickey D’s” is another one. That went from black slang to corporate asset in one generation. McDonald’s calls itself Mickey D’s nowadays. I even saw it on a McDonald’s receipt one time.
But as years pass, white people tend to forget where these words came from. Us too. I didn’t know, until I bought the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, that “the Big Apple” was originally black slang for New York.
I recently stumbled upon a Time magazine article from 1963. It was all about the exotic mystery of black American speech.
Funny thing is, some of the terms that seemed exotic and mysterious to a white editor 45 years ago... they are now so much a part of white vernacular, it’s like blacks never invented them.
Here’s the first sentence from the Time article:
“A white man who attended a Negro civil rights rally as a spectator might well be puzzled to hear a speaker say ‘Now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.’ ”
Isn’t that wild? Can you imagine a time when white people thought “nitty-gritty” was puzzling?
“When U.S. Negroes talk to one another, their speech is often marbled with expressions incomprehensible to whites,” according to Time magazine. “Since slavery days, Negroes have created an ever-changing argot of their own, full of ambiguities, tinged with humor and sorrow.”
More examples from the pages of Time in 1963:
Put down = insulted.
Busted = arrested.
Fox = pretty girl.
Fuzz = the police.
Phat = general adjective of approval.
The Man = whites in general.
Soul brother = a fellow Negro.
The magazine then points out a timeless truth: “Terms that are widely adopted by whites go out of style among Negroes.... ‘When it’s hip among whites,’ says one white investigator of the Negro argot, ‘it’s already square among Negroes.’ ”
( ^ Not from Time magazine.)