Release notes: Bama and shaka: how two local words went global

By Katherine Connor Martin, Head of US Dictionaries

Words follow many different paths on their way to being entered into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Sometimes, the journey is rapid and straightforward, with every step well documented. This is the case with high-profile neologisms like crowdsourcing or locavore, which were coined by a specific person in an identifiable publication and then quickly disseminated into global English. On the other end of the spectrum are two words entered in the present update of the OED, Bama and shaka. These words became established in localized colloquial usage before eventually being more widely popularized and spreading into the broader vocabulary of English. And because they came about in local, colloquial speech, it’s very likely that we will never be able to fully document their earliest use or solve all of the mysteries about their origins.


Bama has two major strands of meaning. The first is straightforward: it is an abbreviation of the name of the U.S. state of Alabama, used to refer either to the state itself or to sports teams representing the University of Alabama. Bama was being used in this way by the early 1920s, and that use continues to the present. But by 1970 a new meaning had emerged, especially in the Washington, D.C. area: Bama (also spelled Bamma, and often with a lower-case initial) was being used to refer not to a place, but to a person, specifically ‘a rustic; an “un-hip” person’ (1970 Current Slang Fall, p. 5). That first citation comes from a list of slang terms reported by black students attending the University of South Dakota but hailing from a number of cities, including D.C., and so presumably represents a word the informants had been familiar with back home.  The use of Alabama as a byword for the South generally was established as early as the 1940s in New York, and in 1966 black high school students in Washington, D.C. were said to be using the phrase ‘bama chukker as a disparaging term for ‘a southern white rustic’, but we don’t have enough evidence to say for certain when Bama alone began to mean ‘hick’.

The cultural background of Bama’s new meaning was one of the most significant population shifts of American history:  the Great Migration of African Americans from the agrarian South to the North and to southern cities, making southern-born black people an increasingly large proportion of the population in many urban areas, including Washington, D.C.  Bama was originally intended as an insult, but it came to be embraced by some southern natives living in D.C. as a self-designation.  In 1978, D.C. City Council member Douglas E. Moore, a native North Carolinian activist and minister, referred to himself as ‘a ‘bama from North Carolina’ (1978 Washington Post 24 Aug. 10/1), and in the early 1980s, a D.C. radio station featured a weekly show called The ‘Bama Hour which celebrated the ‘Bama label. Nonetheless, in a newspaper article about the radio programme, one African-American interviewee claimed that ‘a ‘Bama is the worst thing you can call a black man in this town’, while another lamented about ‘the ‘Bama image of blacks’.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, Bama began to spread more widely, but remained chiefly in African-American use; it was used as an insult in the script of the Spike Lee film School Daze, set on the campus of a historically black university. The word also began to take on a more general connotation, as both a noun and an adjective, of ‘unfashionable or unsophisticated’, but not necessarily with specific reference to being from the rural South: ‘I love men in Levi’s. Not Lee, too boxy. Not Wrangler, too Bama’ (1996 Benilde Little, Good Hair p. 30).

Bama received a major boost in prominence earlier this year thanks to Beyonce’s song Formation, which she released in February and subsequently performed at the Super Bowl halftime show. The song includes the lyric (cited in the OED’s entry) ‘My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana / You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama.’ That line describes Beyonce’s own ancestry, and in describing herself as a ‘Texas bama’, she reclaimed the term as a positive identity—as well as introducing it to a huge, worldwide audience.


Shaka originated in Hawaiian English, where it is used as an interjection to express positive sentiments such as affirmation, approval, and solidarity, characteristically in the greeting or valediction shaka brah (brah being a shortened form of brother in Hawaiian English). Shaka is also used to refer to a distinctive Hawaiian hand gesture of greeting, affirmation, or approval (more fully the shaka sign), in which the thumb and little finger are extended outward from a closed fist. But how the word shaka came to have these meanings in Hawaiian English is something of a mystery: the sibilant sh- sound doesn’t exist in the Hawaiian language, so shaka isn’t a Hawaiian word adopted into English. Where, then, did it come from?

Theories of shaka’s ultimate origin abound, but none of them can be definitively verified. Hawaii has a large Japanese population, and one possible origin of shaka is a Japanese byname of the historical Buddha. Some secondhand accounts claim that this word was in use as a familiar blessing in Hawaii as early as the 1880s, but documentation of such use has not yet been found. The earliest evidence found by the OED’s researchers is from a 1972 book about Hawaiian English, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the word was popularized in the islands during the 1960s by the Hawaiian entertainer Lippy Espinda, who is said to have used the phrase ‘shaka brah’ along with the shaka sign in advertisements for his car dealership.  Espinda was known as the ‘King of Pidgin’ for his efforts to promote the Hawaiian variety of English, and appeared as an actor on the American television programme Hawaii Five-0. How long the phrase was in use before then, and where Espinda himself may have learned it, has so far proven impossible to verify; there are some interesting recollections from older Hawaiians who remember using the gesture as children in the 1940s and 1950s, but not necessarily in combination with the word shaka.

Whatever its ultimate origin, the word shaka remains associated primarily with the vocabulary of Hawaii. But it has made inroads on the mainland and around the world courtesy of Hawaii’s most famous cultural export: surfing. Surfers who had visited Hawaii (or wanted to give the impression that they had) appropriated the gesture and word as part of their own global subculture.


The words bama and shaka both have some missing links in their histories, where usage was changing and developing  within a particular community of speakers and did not always leave a clearly documented trail.  The OED has sought to record their known histories to this point, but it is in the nature of regionalisms to defy attribution to a particular coiner or moment in time. There are thousands of words like this that remain limited to a circumscribed region and are recorded only in regional dictionaries and wordlists, if at all. But sometimes, as in the case of Bama and shaka, those words break outside their original community and become recognized nationally and internationally as part of the ever-changing and growing lexicon of English.