Researchers unveil the first words of the Oxford African American English dictionary

Editors at the Oxford University Press are unveiling a shortlist of words that will be featured in a first-of-its-kind dictionary.

The Oxford Dictionary of African American English won’t hit shelves until March 2025. But the task of collecting at least 1,000 words created or reinvented by Black people is well underway. So far, a shortlist of the first words has been released, said Adam Bradley, a member of the research team and a professor of English and African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Some of the words include:

  • kitchen (n.) — short, curly hair at the nape of the neck
  • pat (v.) — to tap, usually the foot, in time with music
  • Aunt Hagar’s children (n.) — an acknowledgment of Black people as a group
  • Chitterlings (n.) — a Southern dish made from pig intestines

“What we’re trying to do is trace back as closely as we can the point of origin into the culture of this language,” Bradley told WTOP. “To credit those who created it and help disseminate it even more broadly.”

The dictionary will be edited by famed scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor of African American History at Harvard University. Bradley, one of Gate’s former students, was selected by his mentor to join the team of researchers, lexicographers and editors.

The group collects the words, defines each term and includes the historical significance for African Americans and the impact of each word on popular culture. Bradley said words like “grill” have one meaning that many people know and another that many people of color use.

“Any given word can have multiple senses. In the case of ‘grill,’ you can think about the grill in my backyard that I’m going to use this weekend,” he said. “But then there’s the idea of the stylized covering over one’s teeth.”

The new dictionary defines a grill as a removable or permanent dental overlay often made of silver or gold.

Another word featured in the dictionary: “bussin.”

It’s commonly used as an adjective, describing something tasty, impressive or excellent, and its meaning, Bradley said, has changed over decades and generations.

“We have Gen Z using it without knowing its long history. That’s also the wonderful thing about how many of these terms work,” he said. “They get rediscovered by generations. We can trace [the word] back much farther than the contemporary era, and yet folks are using it in 2023 like they just discovered it.”

As researchers collect words, phrases and terms, they also need help in the monumental task.

The group is asking for submissions.

“One of the richest and most exciting resources of this project is to have submissions from people who are using the words themselves,” Bradley said. “Or maybe they remember when a parent or grandparent used these terms. It’s such a wonderful thing.”

If you’d like to contribute a word, you can visit the Oxford Dictionary of African American English submission page.

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