Press Release: Announcing the launch of a research project to create the Oxford Dictionary of African American English

Press Release: Announcing the launch of a research project to create the Oxford Dictionary of African American English

A cornerstone of new research into African American language, history, and culture

Editor-in-Chief: Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

June 2022, Oxford/New York – Oxford Languages, a division of Oxford University Press and publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research are delighted to announce the launch of a three-year research project, whose aim is to compile the Oxford Dictionary of African American English (ODAAE). The project is funded in part by grants from the Mellon and Wagner Foundations.

African American English, with its roots in African languages and creoles, has been a major influence on the development of English vocabulary, particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries. It has long contributed full categories of words and phrases that have had a profound impact on the way that English is used in the United States and worldwide.

Working in collaboration with the editorial unit of the OED and supported by an advisory board of leading scholars on African American language and culture (see Notes for Editors for full list), the ODAAE is being compiled and edited by a team of researchers and editors at Oxford University Press and the Hutchins Center, spearheaded by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Director of the Center and Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard. Through a combination of detailed scholarly research and an outreach program soliciting community contributions, the team will endeavor to record the most comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date picture of African American English to date.

Alongside meaning, pronunciation, spelling, usage, and history, each entry will be illustrated by quotations taken from real examples of language in use. This will serve to acknowledge the contributions of African-American writers, thinkers, and artists, as well as everyday African Americans, to the evolution of the English lexicon. Evidence will be gathered from such diverse sources as novels, academic research papers, newspapers and magazines, song lyrics, recipes, social media, and more.

Every speaker of American English borrows heavily from words invented by African Americans, whether they know it or not,” says Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “Words with African origins such as ‘ ‘goober’, ‘gumbo’ and ‘okra’ survived the Middle Passage along with our African ancestors. And words that we take for granted today, such as ‘cool’ and ‘crib,’ ‘hokum’ and ‘diss,’ ‘hip’ and ‘hep,’ ‘bad,’ meaning ‘good,’ and ‘dig,’ meaning ‘to understand’—these are just a tiny fraction of the words that have come into American English from African American speakers, neologisms that emerged out of the Black Experience in this country, over the last few hundred years. And while many scholars have compiled dictionaries of African American usage and vocabulary, no one has yet had the resources to undertake a large-scale, systematic study, based on historical principles, of the myriad contributions that African Americans have made to the shape and structure of the English language that Americans speak today. This project, at long last, will address that need”.

The editing of the Oxford Dictionary of African American English will realize a dream I’ve nurtured since I first studied the pages of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language: to research and compile fully and systematically the richness of African American English, using the lexicographical tools and historical principles that the Oxford English Dictionary embodies, including examples of usage in Black literature and discourse from their earliest manifestations to the present. This massive project draws upon decades of scholarship from the most sophisticated linguists, especially those colleagues who have graciously joined this project as members of our editorial board, as well as the vast academic resources at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, and the crowd-sourced contributions of speakers of African American English as well.

Casper Grathwohl, President of Oxford Languages at OUP, says: “At OUP we’re proud to be initiating this timely and important project with the team at Harvard. African American English has had a profound impact on the world’s most widely spoken language, yet much of it has been obscured. The ODAAE seeks to acknowledge this contribution more fully and formally and, in doing so, create a powerful tool for a new generation of researchers, students, and scholars to build a more accurate picture of how African American life has influenced how we speak, and therefore who we are.

John McWhorter, Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University and advisory board member, says: “African-American English is the most interesting dialect of American English on all levels, and yet remains misunderstood by the public. Even specialists in it have a fascinating mountain of material still to examine. I would feel incomplete to not participate in this project.”

Example entries:

saditty, adjective (and adverb) /səˈdɪti/ Affecting white middle-class values, esp. characterized by an air of superiority; conceited, ‘stuck-up’. Also as adverb.
Forms: 1900s–saddity, sadiddy, saditty, seditty, siddity, siditty
Origin: Uncertain; perhaps an alteration of SEDATE, adj. (compare quot. 1948).
Citations:
1948 G. L. Coyle Group Work with American Youth 38 The desire for the group was voiced by its president in her attempts to get the girls to be ‘ladies and cultivated’—or, as frequently stated by them, to be more ‘seditty’ (sedate), a colloquialism referring to the respectable and controlled behavior associated with middle-class standards.
1963 Pittsburgh Courier 28 Sept. 18 Schenley, stronghold of this city’s ‘saditty’ set, was invaded one recent Sunday afternoon by bearers of ‘way out’ paintings, carvers of futuristic tree trunks, and be-sneakered exponents of ‘beatnik’ poetry.
1967 Jet 20 July 43 Eartha..is considered ‘seditty’ by many Negroes. 1971 C. Mitchell-Kernan in T. Kochman Rappin’ & Stylin’ Out (1972) 318 That’s all I hear lately—soul food, soul food. If you say you don’t eat it you get accused of being saditty.
1974 M. Angelou Gather Together (1975) xvi. 65 I was that rarity, a Stamps girl who had gone to the fabled California and returned. I could be forgiven a few siditty airs. 1992 T. Morrison Jazz 40 If you don’t want to dance, we can just sit there at the table, looking siditty by the lamplight.
1997 African American Review (Nexis) 22 Sept. 455 When Mrs. Hardaway began acting hincty and seddity at an early age and passing for white, her own momma threw her out into the street.
2004 Slate Magazine (Nexis) 3 Sept. b12 These seditty, high falutin’ blacks were as determined to segregate us from them as were whites.

boo, noun /bu/ A girlfriend or boyfriend; a lover. Also as a form of address.
Forms: also with capital initial.
Origin: Uncertain. Perhaps a variant or alteration of another lexical item. Or perhaps an imitative or expressive formation. Etymon: beau n.
Etymology: Origin uncertain. Perhaps (i) a specific use of boo, a term of endearment or affectionate form of address (compare boo ‘my dear’ (1982 in Bahamian English)), probably < boo brother (1968 in U.S. regional English; rare), a hypocoristic form of brother n. (compare Buh n.), or perhaps (ii) originally a nursery word in sense ‘child’ (compare Green’s Dictionary of Slang at boo n.5, and compare babe n.), or perhaps (iii) an alteration of beau n.
Originally and chiefly U.S. slang (earliest in African-American usage).
Citations:
1988 Washington Post 22 Dec. d5/2 Lionel R. Harris is my boyfriend. Lewis shot my Boo and it was not self-defense.
1994 T. Woods True to Game xvii. 195 Qua, please, please..baby, don’t leave me. Don’t leave me now! Boo, talk to me!
1998 Time Out N.Y. 2 July 113/3 Reenacted phone conversations that find Miss Jones dishing stridently to a girlfriend about her man’s imagined infidelities, as well as an actual conversation with her boo.
2002 ‘Nelly’ et al. Dilemma (transcribed from song) Even when I’m with my boo, boy you know I’m crazy over you.
2016 Herald Sun (Austral.) (Nexis) 4 Aug. 39 Start a band, tell your mates to do the same, find a venue (it could be your backyard, it could be my backyard, I’ll ask my boo) and raise some funds.
to come correct, phrase To do something right; to behave appropriately and respectfully.
1985 ‘Run’ et al. King of Rock (transcribed from song, performed by ‘Run-DMC’) We rock the party and come correct Our cuts are on time and rhymes connect.
2019 A. Thomas On the Come Up iii. 39 ‘Milez, you better come correct,’ Hype says. ‘Let’s get it!’

Keep up to date with the development of the Dictionary by signing up to our newsletter. Find out more here.

To speak to a member of the Oxford Dictionary of African American English team, please contact:
Kate Shepherd, kate.shepherd@oup.com

NOTES FOR EDITORS
ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS
Full details of all advisory board members here.

  • John Baugh, Professor of Psychology, Anthropology, Education, English, Linguistics, and African and African-American Studies, Washington University in St. Louis
  • Adam Bradley, Professor of English and African American Studies, UCLA
  • William Labov, Emeritus Professor at the University of Pennsylvania
  • Sonja Lanehart, Professor of Linguistics; Teaching, Learning and Sociocultural Studies, and Africana Studies, University of Arizona
  • John McWhorter, Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University
  • Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, Vice Chancellor for Graduate Studies and Dean of the Graduate Division, UCLA
  • Marcyliena Morgan, Ernest E. Monrad Professor of the Social Sciences, Professor in the Department of African and African American Studies, Harvard University, and Executive Director, Hiphop Archive
  • John Rickford, J. E. Wallace Sterling Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and the Humanities, Stanford University
  • Geneva Smitherman, University Distinguished Professor Emerita, Michigan State University
  • Tracey Weldon, Professor in the English Department and Linguistics Program, University of South Carolina
  • Walt Wolfram, William C. Friday Distinguished University Professor, North Carolina State University

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ABOUT THE HUTCHINS CENTER
The Hutchins Center for African & African American Research supports research on the history and culture of people of African descent the world over and provides a forum for collaboration and the ongoing exchange of ideas. It seeks to stimulate scholarly engagement in African and African American studies both at Harvard and beyond, and to increase public awareness and understanding of this vital field of study. As the preeminent research center in the field, the Hutchins Center sponsors visiting fellows, art exhibitions, publications, research projects, archives, readings, conferences, and new media initiatives that respond to and excite interest in established and emerging channels of inquiry in African and African American research

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