Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about cultural appropriation and black culture — the coopting of traditionally black: hairstyles, fashion, and music. But perhaps it’s time to take a step back and revisit what might be the most appropriated aspect of black culture — black slang.
From “the bomb” to “holla” to the very short-lived “YOLO,” black slang words often go through the cycle of being used by black people, discovered by white people, and then effectively “killed” due to overuse and a general lack of understanding of how to use these words. Often, the origin of these words aren’t even acknowledged — “twerk,” had literally been around for over a decade before Miley Cyrus brought it to the mainstream (ie. white people).
The politics of black slang are tricky. Black slang and AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) have long been considered inferior to so-called “standard” English, and the black people who use it seen as uneducated or unintelligent (forcing many to master the art of code-switching). So when suddenly words and phrases that have strong ties to the black community are adopted and warped by non-black people, it can cause some of us to feel indignant, even insulted.
A case can be made that these words entering the mainstream is ultimately a good thing. It can be viewed as a melding of ideas and worlds, proof that the English language is always changing, and evidence that black people and black culture are becoming more largely accepted. And anyway, don’t black people use “white” slang words, too? Like awesome, and rad, and totes (not really)? But another case could be made that we live in a society that loves black culture — but doesn’t like black people all too much — and what might look like acceptance is just downright thievery.
Listen. The idea here isn’t necessarily to say that white people shouldn’t use certain black slang (although by now we should all be clear on the N-word debate). There’s a trickle down effect with anything that is cool, hip, and happening, so it makes sense why these words and phrases eventually reach the mainstream and become part of a larger, mixed lexicon — take YOLO and “hot mess” being added to the OED, for example.
But the issue is how the etymology of these words gets lost in the sauce. There have been white people who’ve taken issue with the black slang word “salty” (meaning angry, pissed off) for being derogatory against mentally ill people, which is blatantly untrue. A lot of this kind of confusion and misinformation abounds, leading white and non-black people to use some of the more offensive terms in the black lexicon.
As a general rule, if you have to ask whether or not it’s OK to use a word, if there’s any hesitation, then don’t. But also, we should all be aware of where these words come from and what they mean without attributing arbitrary definitions to them.
So in keeping with that idea, below are some words and phrases that found their roots in AAVE before being coopted by white people. Rest in peace. Gone, but not forgotten.
Bae is an abbreviation of the word “babe,” and basically means a significant other. While its exact origins are unclear (as is the case of many of the words on this list), it became popular on Black Twitter and Instagram as early as 2013 in the form of the hashtags #baecaughtmesleepin and #cookingforbae, among others. It eventually made its way firmly in to the mainstream after Pharrell released the song “Come Get It Bae” and Time magazine wrote an article about it, and several Urbandictionary entries have erroneously defined it as an acronym for “Before Anyone Else.” Its popularity petered out quickly because white people eventually found it obnoxious (after using it do death). One Buzzfeed article suggested people should stop using the word because “bae is actually the Danish word for ‘poop, crap, feces.'” Welp.
The “trap” and “trap queen/king” have been used for years, but became popular once Fetty Wap’s super catchy song “Trap Queen” started playing on mainstream radio this summer. Now there are white girls out in these streets calling themselves trap queens. White crooners like Ed Sheeran did an acoustic cover of the song. Mr. Wap himself performed it on stage with Taylor Swift. Blake Griffin had to break down what a trap queen (the ride-or-die girlfriend of a drug dealer) is in an interview. And then the above video got made. There’s nothing left to say. Trap Queen is dead. Long live Trap Queen.
Ratchet is one of those words, like ghetto, that white people tend to use to describe anything and everything — but especially things that aren’t even ratchet or ghetto (“Oh my god, my broken iPhone screen is totally ratchet!”). It’s a classist term for sure, but some white people seem to use it as shorthand for “black,” (as evident in the tone-deaf and wack Lil Debbie video above). That’s not OK. It’s kinda like “diet-n**ga,” as Hannibal Burress once said. Maybe don’t.
*Article originally published on Huffington Post