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The African Origins of Common English Words (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. When I first wrote about the African origins ofcommon English words on September 8, 2010, I promised that I...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

When I first wrote about the African origins ofcommon English words on September 8, 2010, I promised that I would expand the list and update my conclusions when I had the chance to read the five books that have been written on the subject, which I hadn’t read at the time I wrote the article. 

The books are Newbell Niles Puckett’s Black Names in America: Origins and Usage, which was published in 1975; Winifred Kellersberger Vass’ The Bantu Speaking Heritage of the United States published in 1979; Gerard Matthew Dalgish’s A Dictionary of Africanisms: Contributions of Sub-Saharan Africa to the English Language published in 1982; Joseph E. Holloway’s Africanisms in American Culture published in 1990; and Joseph E Holloway’s and Winifred Kellersberger Vass’ The African Heritage of American English published in 1993.

I read all these books over the past few weeks and particularly found Gerard Matthew Dalgish’s A Dictionary of Africanisms: Contributions of Sub-Saharan Africa to the English Language and Joseph E Holloway’s and Winifred Kellersberger Vass’ The African Heritage of American English very informative, although I think that they hyperbolize and romanticize their evidence and conclusions in many places. I will start with common English words that trace their origins to black African languages, then write on the contributions that African languages have made to the structure and idioms of the English language, and either revise or restate my 2010 conclusions. I expect this series to run for at least three weeks. So let’s begin with the English words in common usage today that started as African words.

Boogie (or Boogie-woogie). Boogie is a chiefly American English word for “a form of instrumental blues, especially for piano, using melodic variations over a constantly repeated bass figure.”  Over the years, it has come to mean any pop music dance session. As a verb, boogie has several meanings in American English. One, it is used to mean dance to pop or rock music, as in “they boogied all night long.” Two, it means to make love. Three, it’s used as a slang term to mean “get going.” So “let’s boogie” can be understood in American English to mean “let’s get going.” That would be “mu je” in Hausa, “je ka lo” in Yoruba,” “ka anyi gaa,” in Igbo, “su da” in Baatonu, etc.

In A Dictionary of Africanisms: Contributions of Sub-Saharan Africa to the English Language, Gerard M. Dalgish claims that boogie-woogie is of West African origin. He said it’s derived either from Hausa or Mandingo, and traces its etymology to “buga,” which means to beat in both Hausa and Mandingo. But in their book The African Heritage of American English, Joseph E Holloway and Winifred K. Vass claim that boogie-woogie is an American English domestication of the Bantu “mbuki-mvuki,” which they say means “to take off in dance performance.” They also acknowledge the possibilities of Hausa and/or Mandingo origins of the word.

 The Collins English Dictionary says the word is “perhaps from Kongo [where] mbugi [means] devilishly good.” But the Oxford English Dictionary says it’s of unknown origin. So does the Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary. Nevertheless no one questions that boogie-woogie was invented by free black slaves in the US state of Texas in the 1800s.

In spite of the black roots of the boogie-woogie musical dance, the evidence for the West African origin of the word isn’t compelling. The evidence seems to me accidental at best and forced at worst. I have two reasons for my conclusion. All the dictionaries I’ve consulted seem to agree that boogie-woogie didn’t appear in African-American English until sometime between 1920 and 1925, although there is some evidence that "Bogie" and "Hoogie Boogie” appeared in the titles of published sheet music between 1880 and 1901. The relative recency of the word’s appearance in African-American English (in its current form, that is,) leads me to think that it isn’t a linguistic holdover from slavery, which means it wasn’t passed on to African Americans from their enslaved African ancestors. That begs the question how the word came into African-American English (and later mainstream American English) from Africa.

The second reason why claims of the African origin of “boogie-woogie” stretch my credulity is that the word appears in many mutually unintelligible African languages—and with vastly different meanings. Although “buga” means to beat in both Hausa and Mandingo, the two languages belong to two different language families. While Mandingo is a Niger Congo language (spoken mostly in the Gambia, Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea, etc), Hausa is an Afro-Asiatic language (spoken in Nigeria, Ghana, Niger, etc.) The appearance of “buga” with a similar meaning in both languages is, I think, merely accidental. When you add the fact of the word’s comparative recency to the irreconcilable semantic diversity of its signification in the languages it supposedly originates from, you are left with a really slender thread of evidence for its African origins.

The Bantu word “mbuki-mvuki does really sound like the true origin of boogie-woogie except that eastern and southern Africans were never enslaved and brought to America. The Transatlantic Slave Trade was limited west and central Africa. If it can be proved that Africans enslaved from Cameroun, the Congo and Angola (where Bantu languages are also spoken) ended up in Texas, then an unassailable case can be made for the word’s African origins.

Bogus. This word means fake, counterfeit, not original, not genuine, etc. It came to the English language from American English, but Holloway and Vass say American English borrowed it from the Hausa word “boko,” which originally meant fake but is now used in modern Hausa to denote Western education (indicating the suspicion and contempt that Hausa people had—perhaps still have—for Western education in relation to Islamic education.) In the variety of French spoken in Louisiana (called Cajun French), “bogue” also means “fake, fraudulent, phony,” according to Holloway and Vass. Although they didn’t say so explicitly, there is an implicit assumption that Hausa slaves in Louisiana introduced “boko” to Cajun French, which was Gallicized (or, if you like, Frenchified or Cajunized) to “bogue.”

However, the Online Etymology Dictionary says bogus is derived “apparently from a slang word applied in Ohio in 1827 to a counterfeiter's apparatus. Some trace this to tantrabobus, a late 18c. colloquial Vermont word for any odd-looking object, which may be connected to tantarabobs, recorded as a Devonshire name for the devil.”

The Oxford English Dictionary declares that the word is of uncertain origin, but points out that when it first appeared in American English in the 18th century it initially referred to a machine used to make counterfeit money. It seems highly probable that the word indeed has Hausa origins.

Boo-boo. I probably helped to popularize this word in Nigerian English when I wrote “President Goodluck Jonathan’s Grammatical Boo-Boos” in my January 27, 2013 column, which went wildly viral in Nigeria. The word means an embarrassing error. Holloway and Vass say the word is of Bantu origin. (Bantu languages are Niger Congo languages spoken in central, eastern and southern Africa and are believed to originate from east and southern Cameroun). The evidence for their conclusion is that in many Bantu languages “mbubu” means “a stupid, blundering act; error, blunder.”

It’s difficult to argue with this etymology of the word, except that no well-known dictionary agrees with it. The Oxford English Dictionary says booboo is an American English reduplication of boob, an informal British English word that has exactly the same meaning as booboo: an embarrassing blunder. It dates the reduplication of the word to the 1950s.  The Random House Dictionary, for its part, says the word has origins in “baby talk.”

For me, the phono-semantic evidence for the word’s African etymology is persuasive, but the historical evidence of its entrance into English vocabulary is weak.

To be continued next week

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