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The African Origins of Common English Words (III)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Let me begin this installment with an update. A native Hausa speaker wrote to tell me that another Hausa w...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Let me begin this installment with an update. A native Hausa speaker wrote to tell me that another Hausa word for fake is “bogi” and suggests that “bogi” is a more likely candidate as the origin of the English “bogus”— and of the Cajun French “bogue”— than “boko,” which also initially meant fake in the Hausa language, as I pointed out last week. This makes a lot of sense to me.

Bug. In their book The African Heritage of American English, Joseph Holloway and Winifred Vass claim that two major senses of this word—that is, to annoy or bother persistently and a small insect— are derived from West African languages. They say the sense of “bug” that means annoy (as in, the paparazzi bugged the celebrities endlessly) traces its roots to the Mandingo word “baga,” which means “to offend, annoy, harm (someone).”   “Bugal,” they point out, is the Wolof equivalent of the Mandingo “baga.” Wolof and Mandingo, as I’ve pointed out in previous articles, are the main languages in Senegal and the Gambia and belong to the same Niger-Congo language family.

Holloway and Vass aver that the sense of bug that means any insect, which is chiefly American, is derived from the Mandingo word “baga-baga,” which means “termite, white ant, insect.” They also say the word “bugaboo,” an American English term for an object of fear or alarm in both the literal and figurative sense, is a derivative of bug. They find evidence for their claim in the fact that the Liberian and black Jamaican English word for termite is “bugaboo.”

I am more persuaded by their etymology than the Oxford English Dictionary’s claim that bugaboo is “probably of Celtic origin and related to Welsh bwci b ‘bogey, the Devil,’ bwci ‘hobgoblin’ and Cornish bucca.” Bugaboo’s decidedly American origin (which all dictionaries admit) makes it more likely to be of African origin (by way of African-American English) than of Welsh origin.

Dig. In informal English, when you “dig” something, it means you understand, like, or appreciate it, as in “Do you dig the meaning of this letter?” or “I really dig Celine Dion’s songs.” That expression began exclusively as Negro Nonstandard English (as African-American English used to be called until fairly recently), then made its way into mainstream American English, and finally crossed the Atlantic to Britain—and to the entire English-speaking world. Holloway and Vass assert that the word is derived from “deg” or “dega,” which they say is the Wolof word for “understand, appreciate, pay attention to.”

It’s hard to fault this etymology, especially because Online Etymology Dictionary’s note on the word’s origin is rather wishy-washy and unconvincing. It says the word’s sense of “understand,” which was first documented 1934 in African-American English, is “probably based on the notion of ‘excavate’” and adds: “A slightly varied sense of ‘appreciate’ emerged 1939. Strong past participle dug appeared 16c., but is not etymological.” That makes little sense, especially in light of Holloway and Vass’s insight on the Wolof origin of the word.

Dirt. Holloway and Vass say this everyday English word owes its life to the Akan word “dote,” which means “earth, soil.” (Akan, also known as Asante, Fante or Twi, is the major language group in southern Ghana and parts of Cote d'Ivoire).  The meaning of dirt in Akan corresponds to one of the early meanings of dirt in English, which is “soil or earth.” That sense is still retained in common expressions like “dirt road,” which means an unpaved road. But the authors’ evidence for the African origin of this word is rather dubious, even dishonest. Many Nigerian languages, including Nigerian Pidgin English, use “doti” to denote dirt,” and “doti” is clearly an English borrowing into Nigerian languages. No one contests that. I suspect that “dote” is also an English loanword in Akan.  But even if “dote” is native to Akan, it seems to me mere accidental evidence that it means the same thing as “dirt” in English.

The etymology of “dirt” is well-documented. All the authorities I’ve consulted agree that the word can be traced back to Middle English, that is, from between 11000 to 1450—when there was no evidence of any significant Black presence in England. The Random House Dictionary says the word is derived from “drit,” an Old Norse word that meant “excrement,” which the Oxford English Dictionary says was the word’s “early sense in English.” (Old Norse is a dead Germanic language that existed from 700 to 1350). The Online Etymology Dictionary even traces the word’s origin still further. It says the Old Norse word drit is “cognate with Old English dritan [which meant] ‘to void excrement’.”

Guy. The informal sense of this word that means a man, a boy, or a fellow is originally Wolof, according to Holloway and Vass. They traced its origins to “gay,” the Wolof word for “fellow.” (Gay is pronounced “ga-i,” not “ge-i”). Conventionally, in English, the singular form of “guy” denotes a youth or a man, and “guys” denotes people of both or either sexes. For instance, the expression “let’s go, guys” can be directed at women alone, at both men and women, or at men alone.

 Dr. David Dalby, a well-regarded English linguist known for his popular LinguasphereObservatory, once made the case that the plural, non-gendered “guys” in English owes etymological debts to the Wolof “gay,” which is also non-gendered and plural. All the etymological dictionaries I've consulted have no insight on the origin of "guy" other than to say that it came to global, mainstream English from American English. This strengthens the argument for the African origin of the word.

Hullaballoo. This somewhat pretentious or facetious word for noisy disturbance, Holloway and Vass claim, is an Anglicization “halua balualua,” which they say is a Bantu expression used for “when those that are coming arrive. Hence noise, uproar, racket of greeting.” I am dubious of the accuracy of this claim.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says hullabaloo first appeared in the English language in 1762 as “hullo-ballo” in northern England and Scotland, and suggested that it’s probably “a rhyming reduplication of hollo,” the earlier form for “hello.” The Oxford English Dictionary and the Collins English Dictionary support this theory of the probable origin of the word. But that’s not the only reason I am reluctant to accept notions of the African origin of the word. Holloway and Vass’ account of the source and development of the word isn’t convincing.

Jiffy. The authors of the African Heritage of American English say this common English word for very short time, instant, etc. is derived from the Bantu word “tshipi,” which they say means “in a second, in a moment.” No known dictionary has etymologized this word. The Online Etymology Dictionary says it is of unknown origin and added that it entered English vocabulary in 1785 initially as the slang term used by thieves to denote "lightning."

In the absence of any alternative etymology, it’s reasonable to assume that Holloway and Vass are right.

To be continued

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