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Black American Vernacular English Expressions You Should Know

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter:  @farooqkperogi In the spirit of America’s Black History Month, which is observed every Febru...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

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 Nigerian 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 the phrases.

1. “Finnin to.” This expression is used to state a desire to do something, 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 soundbite 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.

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, and unnatural. “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 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.

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 but turns around to betray the people who helped him, or refuses to pay the favor forward, and 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, it 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.”

26. “She/he is good people.” This means “she/he is a good person.” This is one of the most puzzling expressions I’ve ever heard in the English language, and I heard it first  from African Americans. But, apparently, saying “he is good people” to convey the sense that someone is a nice, reliable person isn’t exclusive to African American Vernacular English. It’s also common in informal southern and Appalachian English.

The 2008 edition of The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English defines “good people” as “a person who can be trusted and counted on,” and says the expression has been attested in American English since 1891.

So, “good people” isn’t a plural noun in American regional English; it’s a singular noun, and “is good people” is a fixed expression.

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