Thursday, February 21, 2008

When Time magazine discovered black slang

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.)


Cal said...

One that originated among black people was "dissed". Now most of the time I hear it is from white people.

I also think the term "bad" meaning the opposite of what it originally meant started with black people.

Unfortunately, "hoes" and "pimps" started among black people also. Now we have white college students with "Pimp 'n Ho" parties. And of course, white radio and/or TV personalities getting fired or suspended for using these terms.

Anonymous said...

In the early 90's I was working in San Francisco. One of my co-workers was an African-American woman from Oakland. She introduced me to the phrases "Talk to the hand" and "don't go there." In the following years, I've enjoyed watching it spread across geography, race, and class.

Undercover Black Man said...

Cal: "Dissed" is probably the first hip-hop term I noticed crossing over to Standard American English. Now you'll hear "dissed" on the "McLaughlin Group"!

Son of Slam: I wonder what the next black-to-white crossover term will be?

Dollar Bill said...

"Phat" in '63?
Wow,didn't think it went that far back.
Yeah "The Bomb",trancended P-Funk culture,slower than most,but got there just on time for people younger than me to think it was "whack".

bklyn6 said...

How about "word?" This is still a favorite of mine. I don't hear it in the media, but I know it's crossed over. Word.

Ann Brock said...

What about: here come five-0.
Whites kill me saying dude.

bklyn6 said...

Was the word "bro" ever "ghetto vernacular?" I just looked it up at and it seems like it's pretty white now. "Don't taze me bro'!" comes to mind..

Anonymous said...

They had "phat" back in '63? Damn, color me surprised. Reminds me of when I was a kid watching a 30's gangster flick and one of the gangsters said something about getting his "gatt." I guess there is nothing new under the sun.

Kevin Allman said...

Around that same time, James Baldwin wrote an essay about seeing the marquee for his play 'Blues for Mister Charlie' on a Broadway theater, and watching a black man stop dead in the street, apparently thunderstruck that this "underground" term was being paraded in public where white people could see it.

As far as phrases that should jump: I keep waiting for 'wolf tickets' to show up on Hardball or one of the other pundit-argument shows.

Anonymous said...

I had a good chuckle when I bought my daughter a "Pimp My Bike" Happy Meal at Mickey D's. I didn't even want to try to explain to my 5 y.o. what pimp used to mean.

Hillary truly overreacted to a journalist who said that she'd "pimped out Chelsea." Once McDonald's started using "pimp" in an advertising campaign aimed at kids, it lost its original meaning. I'm lovin' it!

Undercover Black Man said...

^ You funny, GenevaGirl!

Undercover Black Man said...

Whites kill me saying dude.

Yep, JJB. They own that word now. ;^)

Undercover Black Man said...

I keep waiting for 'wolf tickets' to show up on Hardball or one of the other pundit-argument shows.

Greetings, Kevin Allman. This sounds like a pretty good premise for a comedy sketch, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

Speaking of McDonalds, anybody remember their short-lived and ill-advised "I'd Hit It" ad campaign? If I hadn't already stopped eating red meat that ad would have compelled me.

Also, one time I used the phrase "wolf tickets" on a forum and someone asked me what it meant. That's a relatively old term but apparently not as common as I'd assumed.

Fay said...

...what about Micky D's "I'm lovin it" campaign. That one had me in stitches for a minute and this is a small digression but have y'all seen the "beatbox guy" on Scrubs?
if not then...

Anonymous said...

I think of Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd as, "The Festrunk Brothers", those two wild and crazy guys from Bratislava.

"Slap my hand, Black Soul Man!"

bklyn6 said...

Okay, I totally didn't know the meaning of wolf ticket, so I looked it up at urban dictionary. Nicely explained. I like that the definition also mentions "playing the dozens."

Matt Norwood said...

I'm always amazed that more hasn't been written about this phenomenon in the mainstream press. There's still this deep, deep denial in white America about the non-white roots of so much of their culture. You look at the average 35-year-old Republican suburbanite in the States these days, and he's wearing clothes and a haircut that were unambiguous emblems of homosexuality fifteen years ago; every third expression out of his mouth was used exclusively by black folks 30 years ago; and the music he listens to is either performed by black people, or it's a cover of old blues and R&B by some white people. And this guy is the face of white racism and homophobia today.

White Americans and black Americans, in the words of James Baldwin, resemble nobody else in the world so much as each other. There are so many cliches flying around about this strange love/hate relationship between these two groups that they've all started to sound corny, but the deeper you dig into the history, the more profound these platitudes reveal themselves to be. Shakespeare's overarching theme from Romeo and Juliet -- "Here's much to do with hate, but more with love" -- suggests that this is a condition that has been with us for a long time among segregated, hostile groups living in close proximity for long periods of time.

That white Americans would adopt the signifiers of black culture, therefore, is not surprising. They love black culture. They envy blacks, they idolize them, they fetishize them.

That they would live in such profound denial about their adoption of these signifiers -- look at the whites who even today don't recognize Elvis and the Rolling Stones as essentially blackface performers -- is also not surprising. They hate black culture. They see it as threatening, corrupting, infectious, contaminating. Their fear and hatred of black culture has led to the enslavement, murder, and repression of blacks that the country is famous for.

And indeed, the whites who are most in danger of "contamination" by black culture -- the poor whites whose socioeconomic status doesn't distinguish them from poor black folks, who live in mixed communities, whose children talk and dress the most like black kids -- tend to be the ones with the strongest reactions, and the ones who are the most hysterical about preserving their white purity. But this hysteria erupts from time to time in the middle classs, every time some black musical or sartorial or other cultural movement catches on with the kids in the suburbs. White people are pretty comfortable with black signifiers if they've been laundered by a few decades of white usage, but they get real flinchy when they can see the blackness through the surface of a piece of slang or a new fashion.

(BTW, a big thanks again to Dave for the book "Black Like You", the history of blackface he sent me which was the best thing I read on race in a long time. I still need to write that review.)

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Well said, Matt. Glad you dug the book.

Undercover Black Man said...

Bklyn6: Mes Deux Cents brought up wolf tickets a few days ago... so I uploaded this track.

bklyn6 said...

^There's a song?! (Thanks for the upload.) I'd never heard it before. I'm starting to think "wolf ticket" is a west coast thing. Or, maybe I'm just slow. :-/

Mes Deux Cents said...


There are also regional words that take even longer to make the mainstream.

"Hella" is one of those words. It's been around for a few years here in the Bay area. It has another word that can be used in its place; "Hecka".

To use them you can say; the guy is hella stupid or he is hecka stupid.

"Bootsie" is another word I've heard here for a while. It means second rate or junk.

That guy's car is "bootsie".

Has anyone heard these words in other parts of the country?

Undercover Black Man said...

^ MDC: I love this topic!

The only time I think I've heard "hella" in a conversation was when I overheard a young sister in an airport a few years ago. She used it repeatedly. It sounded cool.

I guess Prince knows about it, because he had that lyric "Body's hecka slammin'" 20 years ago.

That "bootsie" is totally new to me.

bklyn6 said...

The only time I think I've heard "hella" in a conversation was when I overheard a young sister in an airport a few years ago.

I remember hearing "hella" over 30 years ago, no kidding. A childhood friend used it to describe a guy: "He was hella fine!" It never caught on with me. I really don't like it.

Around the same time I also remember hearing another childhood friend use the word "copasetic."

In re: UBM's Prince reference.... This same friend was the first person I knew who had "For You." We listened to it, but I wasn't feeling Prince that much then. I just thought with that hugh afro he was hecka fine!

justjudith said...

my girl from cali in college used to say hella all the time. i know cash money wish they had put a copyright on bling bling. people don't even remember the song. i would say cool has transcended the boundaries and become overused. and if one non-sista had said "you go, girl" to me i was going to throw up. for real. that one got played fast.

Anonymous said...

"Hella" has been around quite a while. It's even cropped up on "South Park" (Cartman used it to distraction).

Kevin Allman said...

"Hella" is all over, but I agree that it's most popular on the West Coast.

The one I (over)use is "mos def" -- not referring to Mos Def, but used to express surety: "I'll mos def be there."

What about "beaucoup" (or "bookoo") to mean "many"? Is that just a Louisiana term? After the storm I know people who used it in other parts of the country and people looked at 'em like they had two heads.

Undercover Black Man said...

What about "beaucoup" (or "bookoo") to mean "many"? Is that just a Louisiana term?

That was common in D.C. when I was growing up in the '70s.

bklyn6 said...

^I remember "bookoo" but I didn't hear it a lot, and haven't heard it in at least 20 years! And I'm from NY.

"Son" is very popular here. "Whaddup, son?" "Knowwhutumsayin' son?" "Yo, son!" etc. It's like, every other word in a conversation is "son." I've even heard girls call each other son.

And let's not forget, "Yo!"

Bay Radical said...

I grew up in Oakland and I've been saying "hella" and the elementary school version, "hecka" since as long as I can remember, so it's at least 30 years old.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Being from the Bay Area, perhaps you could explain this one to me: hyphy.

I've never heard it uttered in real life, but I come across it every now and then on the internet.

I think the D.C. equivalent -- which I've never heard outside of D.C. -- is syced. Basically, excited.

Mes Deux Cents said...


As far as I know "Hyphy" means to party without any drama (fighting).

I think hyphy is also a type a rap music originating in the Bay area.

Bay Radical said...

HYPHY 101 (from the perspective of a white nerd who lives in East Oakland):

Yes, people do in fact say Hyphy here in The Town.

Getting hyphy is acting hyped up and kinda crazy and the hyphy "movement" is the music, the dance style and the 'scene'. Hyphy music was "underground" in the sense that it didn't come out of commercial hip hop.

Supposedly Hyphy is short for "hyper" - who knows though. I'm starting to hear middle class white kids say that so-and-so is getting "hyphy" so I suppose we can anticipate its rapid demise as a word used among Black and other "urban" youth right? Although Oakland's always had some crossover slang in my experience - like "hella".

Matt Norwood said...

I remember a kid I knew from northern California using Hella all the time, back around '99, but I'm pretty sure I'd heard it before then.

I remember, growing up in DC in the 80s, a whole constellation of words treating one's degree of excitement. "Syced" or "psyched", as Dave pointed out, meant "excited" (although "psych!" was also an expression one used to indicate that one was lying or joking; "I psyched you out", presumably). If one was a little too psyched, one was "pressed": desperate, clingy. One way being pressed manifested was in "riding" someone else's style. As a junior-high student in DC, one lived in fear of being accused of being pressed, or of riding somebody.

There are other little DC-isms that I haven't heard too much from other spots. "Junk", pronounced closer to "joumps", indicated one's stuff or one's business.

It's much easier, actually, to remember the parts of the dialect that didn't become widespread; the ones that get absorbed by the rest of the culture are very difficult to remember as ever having been anything but normal. This is, it occurs to me now, a valuable function of pop culture nostaligia: when some jive turkey from a mainstream Hollywood film from the 70s uses a word like "yo", it highlights the fact that the word hadn't yet hit the mainstream at that time.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ "I ain't pressed." The all-purpose declaration of cool.

The "junk" to which you refer is spelled by the Urban Dictionary as "jawn." And I presume it's a corruption of "joint."

And "syced" is different from "psyched." "Syced" rhymes with sliced and diced. In fact, I have no idea how it's supposed to be spelled or where it derives from... but on the internets folks seem to go with "syced."

bklyn6 said...

"Shout out."

Undercover Black Man said...

^ That's crossed over. I've heard white folks on cable news say it.

Anonymous said...

Kevin Allman, In answer to Beaucoup, I just found it in the last paragraph of this Times article. So, it's being used by mainstream media, so I guess it isn't slang anymore...

Anonymous said...

Does anyone remember the sketch on Mad TV where there was a cadre of Black ad execs whose job it was to come up with new slang terms to insert into everyday use? The words they came up with were totally nonsensical, utterly ridiculous, but when said with attitude and confidence, seemed to make perfect sense. It was hilarious. Guess you had to be there....

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Sa da tay!

Anonymous said...

'Scuze me. But it's "git-go."

Whenever I see it written in SAE (Standard American English), it just doesn't work for me.

"Brother" was never shortened to "bro"; it was "bruh" -- as in "brutha/bruva-man" ("brutha-man.") Again, that's white folks f*ckin' things up by shortening the SAE "brother" (instead of the way it's prononced in AAVE, African American Vernacular English) to "bro."

Like white folks talking about "wolf tickets." And now we're (Black folks) using the term. Sh*t. It's woof tickets. Like a barking dog puttin' up a ruckus/displaying aggression, dammit! Woof! Woof!

I mean jus' day-um.

I wish White folks would just leave our sh*t the hell alone! lol

Anonymous said...

"Psyched" (bein' psyched and psyching someone out) is the same term. It has multiple uses, all derivative of psyche and the association with psychology. The illiterates on the web just have no idea of the origins of the term/s and don't know how to freakin' spell.

Mes Deux Cents said...


I hope this conversation is still going on. I thought of a word that the larger culture has not used yet.

The word is "Fiftyleven".

Usage; that woman has fiftyleven kids.

Meaning; a lot

Has anyone heard this used by the larger culture?

Anonymous said...

^I haven't heard fiftyleven yet. White folks say eleventy for large numbers (particularly to do with age). Thank you, Tolkien!

I like this discussion of beaucoup:

Undercover Black Man said...

The word is "Fiftyleven".

MDC, I'll be shocked if that one ever crosses over. :^D

There are all sorts of black phrases indicating plentitude that haven't crossed over: goo-gobs being an example.

But also gang, as is: "That woman got a gang of kids."

Dollar Bill said...

I use "plentynine" when I am describing my own age or someone else that doesn't want to reveal their true age.

Said quick enough and most people don't even catch it,said slower and it's a real knee slapper at the parties.

Muze said...

wow. i love this post! i didn't even know phat was being used way back in 63. that's pretty amazing. i'll have to think of some words and come back. great post! i actually learned something. lol.

brotherbrown said...

Haven't heard "bootsie" meaning second rate, have heard "booty."

Urban legend has it that "MF" is one of those terms that crossed over.

Here's a twist: What are terms than have not crossed over?


Undercover Black Man said...

Muze: Welcome. Thanks for the comment.

Brotherbrown: I actually used "pootbutt" in an episode of "NYPD Blue"... a black detective talking about somebody with a "pootbutt pistol."

Thanks for adding to the conversation.

Anonymous said...

bad boys bad boys whatcha fin'a do
whatcha fin'a do when dey com fo you?
yaw mean?
yaw'm zane?
keep your sense of humor and everything will turn out.

Anonymous said...

Posts like this are why are love this blog.

This reminds me of that scene from the movie "Undercover Brother" where The Man's minion is completely anti-black but just can't help himself bursting out into black phrases and songs. Love that movie. It's silly, but I love it.