In the late 1930s, pioneering Black recording artist and performer Cab Calloway released the Hepster’s Dictionary, a pamphlet-sized collection of dozens of popular slang terms used in the Black music scene. (Think hip, chick, and jive.) It was a rare attempt to compile the verbiage of the Black community, which originates and reinvents language that often becomes part of the culture at large.
Nearly a century later, scholars are working to assemble a kind of spiritual successor: The Oxford Dictionary of African American English, a collaboration between Oxford University Press and Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. And the first entries have recently been released.
According to The New York Times, the project, which was first announced in spring 2022, has already compiled 100 words likely to be included in the first edition, which is due in 2025. In a virtual gathering, they shared 10. Among them:
Bussin, an adjective to describe excellent food or excellence in general; chitterlings, a noun meaning a dish made from pig intestines; old school, an adjective for early 1970s hip-hop; and kitchen, a noun referring to uncooperative hair at the nape of the neck.
Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., a scholar of African American History at Harvard, the dictionary is intended to be more than just a rote recitation of definitions. The words will be accompanied by quotes from noted Black figures in history, heavily-researched etymologies, and the dual meanings of words created out of necessity in order to avoid repercussions in times of slavery. Some words have been sourced from the existing Oxford English Dictionary; others will come from novels, memoirs, press, and social media.
“Every speaker of American English borrows heavily from words invented by African Americans, whether they know it or not,” Gates said in a statement. “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.”
The Oxford Dictionary of African American English is expected in March 2025. It will likely be a digital release, with the general public able to comment and suggest additions, which people can also submit prior to the first edition.
[h/t The New York Times]