By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Politics of Grammar Column
15. “Show me your guns.” “Guns” is an American English slang term for upper-arm muscles or biceps, so “show me your guns” means “flex your muscles.” It isn’t a uniquely Black English expression, but it’s popular among African Americans.
16. “Open a can of whoop ass.” This expression is used humorously to say you will give somebody a good beating, as in “I’ll open a can of whoop ass on you!” Like the previous expression, it isn’t exclusively Black American, but it’s very popular among speakers of Black American Vernacular English. Other written variations of the expression are “open a can of whup ass” and “open a can of whoop-ass.” “Whoop” is the alternative spelling of “whip” (i.e., to beat severely with a whip or rod) in informal American English.
17. “Oowee!” This is a uniquely Black American English exclamatory expression. It is used in moments of intense and excitatory passions. It’s similar in many respects to the Nigerian Pidgin English exclamation “chei!”
I became aware of the expression in Louisiana years ago when a respectable African-American actor almost yelled it on national television in a moment of unguarded excitation. My friend, who is African-American, told me the actor quickly suppressed the exclamation because mainstream America disdains it as ghetto grunt, ghetto being the economically depressed parts of cities where poor black people live. So he said it out loud for me. He claimed that every African American, irrespective of education and social status, says “oowee!” on their home grounds. That’s clearly an exaggeration.
18. “Shawty ” or “Shorty.” The word originally meant young man, as in “Sup, shawty!” [What’s up, man!] Over the years, however, rap musicians have changed the word’s meaning to a young sexy woman. The Urban Dictionary, a user-generated online dictionary, says the word started life in Atlanta’s Black community as a slang term for a short person before morphing into a term of endearment for just about anybody. Now, hip-hop music has appropriated it as a term for an attractive young lady.
The etymology of “shawty” reminds me of the semantic evolution of the word “girl.” When the word first appeared in the English language, it used to mean a young person of any gender. Now it means a young woman.
19. “Where you ats?” It means “where are you now?” I should quickly point out that this expression isn’t common among older African Americans, many of whom actually find it unbearably irritating. A similar expression that cuts across the generational divide in the Black community is “who dat is?” which stands for “who is that?” Note that I am referring to informal Black vernacular English. Upper middle-class, “bourgie” blacks don’t speak like that—unless they want to identify with black masses.
20. “What’s good?” It’s an alternative expression for “what’s up?” “How are you?” “What’s new?” “What’s happening?” etc.
21. “God don’t like ugly.” This old African-American colloquialism is the non-standard form of “God doesn’t like injustice.” It is often said when a bad, morally depraved or ungrateful person gets poetic justice; when they, as it were, get their just deserts. If, for instance, someone takes advantage of other people’s generosity and help to climb to the high end of the social scale and turns around to betray the people who helped him or refuses to pay the favor forward, but ends up crashing after what seemed like a perfect life, African Americans would say: “God don’t like ugly!” It’s an exclusively Black American homespun witticism that has endured several generations.
22. “Who dat?” It means “who is that?” Black American English, in common with West African Pidgin English, usually either dispenses with the verb to be (such as in the expression “who dat?” instead of “who is that?”) or leaves it unconjugated (such as in the sentence “she be nice” instead of “she is nice”).
But the phrase “who dat” has a cultural significance in America that goes beyond its semantic properties. It is popularly associated with the New Orleans Saints, an American football team located in the southern US state of Louisiana. During games, fans of the team always chant: "Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?" [Who is that? Who is that? Who is it that says they will beat the Saints?]
As the reader can see, there are interesting echoes of West African Pidgin English in the syntactic structure of this quintessentially Black American English mantra. As I promised in a previous article, I will someday compare Black American Vernacular English with West African Pidgin English based on my familiarity with both languages.
23. “Black don’t crack.” It literally means “black doesn’t crack,” but it’s used in Black English to mean that the black skin is ageless, that black people don’t look their age, especially when they’re compared with members of other races. I heard the expression for the first time when I lived in Louisiana. A white American classmate of mine thought he and I were either age mates or that he was older than I was by a few years because of my youngish looks. When he discovered that I was 7 years older than he was, he exclaimed, “Damn, it’s really true that black don’t crack!” I had no clue what in the world he meant, more so that the expression sounded ungrammatical to me. It was through my white friend that I learned that “black don’t crack” is an African-American expression to indicate that the black skin doesn’t crack, that is, doesn't wrinkle. I immediately noticed that “black” and “crack” rhyme.
24. “Skin folk.” This is a Black English expression for members of one’s race. It’s modeled on the Standard English expression “kinfolk,” which means members of one’s nuclear and extended family. The phrase was popularized by Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American folklorist and author who once famously said “All my skinfolk ain't kinfolk.” It is a witty and creative way to say “not all people who share the same racial identity as me are my family.” In other words, there is more to friendship and affinity than mere racial similarity. African-Americans say this when they are betrayed by fellow blacks.
25. “True that.” It means “that is true.”
Politics of Grammar Column