The Oxford Dictionary of African American English

About the Oxford Dictionary of African American English (ODAAE)

An exciting project from the OED and Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research is currently underway. Read more about the project below, or sign up to receive news (at the bottom of this page) as the project progresses.

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.

Casper Grathwohl, President of Oxford Languages at Oxford University Press

The project

Funded in parts by grants from the Mellon and Wagner Foundations, the Oxford Dictionary of African American English (ODAAE) is a landmark scholarly initiative to document the lexicon of African American English (AAE) in a dictionary based on historical principles.

This three-year research project brings together the lexicographical resources of the OED and the Hutchins Center’s network of scholars of African American studies to produce a groundbreaking work of scholarship that will serve as a cornerstone of new research into African American language, history, and culture.

The ODAAE team will apply the depth and rigor of the OED’s historical methodology specifically to the study of AAE. A diverse team of lexicographers and researchers will create a dictionary that will illuminate the history, meaning, and significance of this body of language.

ODAAE will be an authoritative record of African American English. For all those interested in AAE, it will be the definitive reference for information about the meaning, pronunciation, spelling, usage, and history of AAE words.

Every speaker of American English borrows heavily from words invented by African Americans, whether they know it or not. 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.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., Editor-in-Chief

What will be recorded?

The ODAAE will be based on examples of African American speech and writing spanning the history of AAE.

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 US English lexicon and the English lexicon as a whole.

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 advisory 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.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., Editor-in-Chief

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ODAAE advisory board members

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

John McWhorter, Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University and advisory board member

FAQs

What is African American English? 

African American English (AAE) is the variety of English spoken by African Americans. AAE, 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, contributing full categories of words and phrases that have had a profound impact on the way that English is used in the United States and the rest of the world. 

A large body of research has shown AAE to be a distinct, rule-governed, systematic, robust, and stable language variety with much depth for serious linguistic scholarship and documentation. Its lexical features are the results of the natural evolution of a living language used by a people with a rich, diverse history and vibrant culture. 

How has the vocabulary of African American English been documented? 

Since the early 20th century, there have been several attempts to document the AAE lexicon in dictionaries and glossaries. In 1938, jazz bandleader and singer Cab Calloway published Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary, considered to be the first dictionary to be written by an African American. A similar work of around the same time is Hepcats Jive Talk Dictionary, by Lou Shelley, published in 1945. 

Taking a wider view was Clarence Major’s Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang, which was published in 1994 with this title, but was originally published as the Dictionary of Afro-American Slang in 1970. As its title suggests, Major’s dictionary covers AAE slang from as early as the 18th century—juba being a dance performed by enslaved people from the 1790s—to contemporary times, as represented by jive

Other works documenting African American slang are The Third Ear by Herese E. Roberts (1971), Lexicon of Black English (1977) by Joey Dillard, and the more recent African-American Slang by Maciej Widawski (2015), which features a glossary with definitions and example sentences. 

Another noteworthy dictionary is Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner by Geneva Smitherman, published in 1994 and revised in 2000. Again, as suggested by its title, Smitherman’s dictionary contains words and phrases that are used in both secular and religious environments. 

There are also some works that record the lexicon of specific African American subcultures. Notable examples are Edith Folb’s Runnin’ Down Some Lines: The Language and Culture of Black Teenagers (1980), an ethnographic survey of the vocabulary of black teenagers in south central Los Angeles, and two dictionaries of hip-hop: Street Talk: Da Official Guide to Hip-Hop and Urban Slanguage by Randy “Mo Betta” Kearse (2006) and the online dictionary The Right Rhymes by Matt Kohl (2013-). 

Some general dictionaries of English also include coverage of lexical items characteristic of AAE. The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) and several volumes of the Publication of the American Dialect Society (PADS) explicitly label their entries for words used by African Americans during certain time periods. The Oxford English Dictionary also contains hundreds of entries that it identifies as being exclusively, chiefly, and/or originally in African American usage. 

What is the Oxford Dictionary of African American English? 

The Oxford Dictionary of African American English (ODAAE) is a dictionary based on historical principles documenting the lexicon of AAE. The dictionary will be based on examples of African American speech and writing spanning the whole documented history of AAE.  

What is a historical dictionary? 

A historical dictionary is very different from dictionaries of current English, in which the focus is on present-day meanings. You will still find present-day meanings in a historical dictionary, but you will also find the history of individual words, and of the language as a whole. One of the world’s most renowned historical dictionaries is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), widely regarded as the definitive record of the English language. The OED shows the full history of the English lexicon, traced through over three million quotations illustrating more than 600,000 entries. To learn more about the OED, click here. To learn more about the OED’s work on different varieties of English spoken around the world, click here

Will the ODAAE take a descriptive or prescriptive approach? 

The ODAAE will be an evidence-based, descriptive dictionary, like the OED. Its purpose is not to influence what words are used, or how they are used, but to provide a record of how language is being used.  

How will the ODAAE team track the development of AAE?  

Historical lexicography is based on the principle that entries should be based on actual linguistic fact, chiefly drawn from examples illustrating contemporary usage over different periods of time. The practice of historical lexicography thus requires developing and analyzing a large and representative corpus of evidence. An essential part of the ODAAE project is the development and maintenance of evidence resources to support lexicographical analysis and description. 

Entries in the ODAAE will be supported by quotation evidence with real examples of words in use shown throughout the documented record. The primary function of these quotations will be to illustrate the way a word or sense is used through its history from its earliest use to the present day. Just as OED entries are exemplified by quotations from names such as William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and George Orwell, the entries in ODAAE will be illustrated by quotations from figures such as William Wells Brown, W. E. B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Martin Luther King, Jr., Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman, and August Wilson. The work of African American artists and musicians will also be represented, as lyrics from jazz, blues, hip-hop, and R&B can provide quotation evidence just as much as novels, essays, poems, and plays.  

The role of African Americans in shaping the vocabulary of their language will also be highlighted by quotations taken from sources such as slave narratives, letters, diaries, newspaper and magazine articles, even posts on “Black Twitter”.  

When will this project end?  

The initial phase of the project will last for three years, with the dictionary currently slated for release in 2025. 

How can I stay informed about the project?  

You can sign up to a newsletter specifically for the ODAAE by filling out the form in the ‘Sign up to receive news about the ODAAE’ tab above..