By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
In the spirit of America’s Black History Month, which is observed every February, I have decided to share with my readers African-American English expressions that I’ve learned in the course of my stay in America. While many of the expressions are southernisms (i.e., the distinctive English usage of southern United States irrespective of race), several are unique to American blacks irrespective of the region of the United States they may be. Of course, for historical reasons, there are more blacks in southern United States than anywhere else in the country. That is why “Black English” and “Southern English” are often alike.
Somehow, most African-Americans that I have met here don’t immediately realize that I am African until my accent betrays me. So some of them speak to me in Ebonics (as African-American Vernacular English is now called), which used to throw me off. Over the years, however, I have come to understand many of these phrases. I thought it would help relations between Africans on the continent and American blacks if I highlight some of these phrases.
1. “Finnin to.” This expression is used to state a desire, as in “I’m finnin to slap him,” “He’s finnin to eat some food,” etc. The expression is a corruption of “I’m fixing to,” which is a Southern United States expression that means exactly the same thing as “finnin to.” I became familiar with “finnin to” when the sound bite of a rural, uneducated Mississippi black man by the name of Erick Hubbard went viral in April 2011. He was complaining about a devastating tornado that took away his burger. “I was finnin to eat my hamburger, it took it!” he said. I didn’t think he was speaking English until someone broke it down for me. (You can watch the video below).
2. “Bourgie (pronounced boo-zhee). It is a corruption of the Marxist term “bourgeoisie.” American blacks use the word to describe someone who has pretentious airs and taste, who is fake. It is also used to describe black people whose politeness, cultivated manners, and courtesy are considered contrived, excessive, not natural. “She bourgie” is a common putdown for girls that are considered pretentious.
3. “Uncle Tom.” This old expression for a servile black man who is excessively deferential to white people is still active in the idiolect of African Americans. The expression was particularly popular in the 1960s thanks largely to Malcolm X’s constant demeaning references to Civil Rights leaders as Uncle Toms.
4. “Dip.” It means to leave suddenly, as in “I gotta dip.”
5. “Ma Boo.” It means “my boyfriend” or “my girlfriend” in Black English. It’s a corruption of the French word beau (pronounced “bow”), which means boyfriend.
6. “Booty” (pronounced something like boo-di). It is a Black American English word for a woman’s buttocks. The word’s Standard English meaning is, of course, loot or money/goods obtained illegally. When a woman is described as having “lotta booty,” (that is, “a lot of booty”) don’t for a moment think she has lots of loot to share with you.
7. “Bootylicious.” A woman with a lot of “booty” is called “bootylicious.” It’s a blend of “booty” and “delicious.” The word was popularized, but by no means invented, by Destiny’s Child (the music group that Beyoncé was a part of). One of the songs in the group’s 2001 album is titled “bootylicious.” The Oxford English Dictionary recognized “bootylicious” as a legitimate English word three years after its appearance in Destiny’s Child album. It defines it as: "(of a woman) sexually attractive."
8. “Big ol’.” It’s the shortening of “big old,” but it often sounds like “big-o.” It’s an adjectival phrase often used to modify just about any noun: “he is a big ol’ idiot,” “that’s a big ol’ car,” “my big ol’ dad,” etc. The nouns the phrase modifies may be neither big nor old. As I think about it, it seems to me that the phrase should more correctly be described as an intensifier, which is defined as a word or phrase that has no meaning except to heighten or deepen the meaning of the word or phrase it modifies. I should add that “big ol’” isn’t an exclusively African-American expression; it’s a southern American English expression, which now enjoys currency in other parts of the United States.
9. “Baad/baddest.” In Black American English, “bad,” or, more correctly, “baad,” isn’t the opposite of “good; it is, on the contrary, the superabundance of good. You should feel flattered, not offended, when a Black American says to you: “men, you baad.” It means “you’re really good.” The comparative and superlative forms of “bad” aren’t “worse” and “worst,” as they are in Standard English; they are “badder” and “baddest.” The “baddest guy” in town isn’t the worst guy in town; he is the coolest, most fashionable, and most socially adept guy in town. “Badass” also means “brilliant; very good.”
10. “My bad.” This phrase is used to offer apologies for a wrongdoing. If someone hits a person in error, for instance, they would say something like: “Oops, my bad.” It means: “I apologize; it was my mistake. Forgive me.” Many etymologists say the phrase was initially restricted to Black American basketball players in the 1970s and the 1980s, but it’s now part of general informal American English.
11. “Dry begging.” In Black American English, this phrase means asking for something in a vague, circuitous way. For instance, instead of saying “I’m hungry. Could you kindly share that your food with me?” a dry beggar would say something like: “That food looks really good. I haven’t eaten all day.” We call this “fine bara” in Nigerian Pidgin English. (Bara is the Hausa word for begging.)
12. “Finger-lickin’ good.” The phrase is used of food to mean it’s so good you would lick it with your fingers. It is actually not a uniquely Black American English expression; it was popularized by Kentucky Fried Chicken, an American fast-food chain, whose motto, until 2011, was “finger-lickin’ good.” I’ve included it in the list because I’ve heard the phrase mostly among African Americans here.
13. “We straight.” In Black American English, “straight” can mean “all right.” So “we straight” [we’re straight] means “That’s OK. No worries. We are all right.” President Barack Obama brought this expression to national limelight in 2009 when he visited a black-owned restaurant in Washington, DC called Ben’s Chili Bowl. After paying for his meal, a cashier, who is black, asked him if he wanted his change back. “Nah, we straight,” Obama said. If the cashier were white, Obama would probably have said something like: “No, it’s OK. You can keep it.”
14. “Put your foot in it.” In Black American English, this phrase is used to compliment excellent cooking. It means a meal is remarkably cooked. My first encounter with the phrase some years back wasn’t pretty. I complimented the cooking of an African-American friend of mine. In response to my compliment, she said, “yeah, I put my foot in it.” I immediately became nauseous. I was about to throw up when she told me it was just an expression. I thought she meant she literally put her foot in the food. I didn’t realize it was a self-praise of her culinary exploits.
It should be noted that the phrase has a completely different meaning in (old-fashioned) British English. It means to embarrass oneself by acceding to an agreement that places one in danger or at a disadvantage.
To be concluded next week