Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Hiptionary

by Mahmoud El-Kati
Papyrus Publishing
Paperback, $12.00
214 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9675581-7-2

Book Review by Kam Williams

“Throughout the cultural evolution of the United States, Black people have consistently contributed a huge stock of colorful words, phrases, sayings, phonics, and other linguistic devices, some of which were brought from Africa… Since the dawn of the 20th Century, descendants of Black folks have set the pace in the rise of popular American culture, leading every major point of departure in music, dance, and creation of the hip lifestyle.
To be hip is to speak the sometimes code-switching language of Black Americans… Hiptionary refers to well-established traditions of African-American speech patterns, with changes and adaptations as the years go by. They are, strictly or grammatically speaking, non-dictionary words. The attempt in this volume is to collect representative samples of this ongoing and influential part of American English, and give due recognition to it as a major force in shaping the way American English is spoken.”
-- Excerpted from the introduction (pages 1-3)

Way back in 1941, Professor Melville J. Herskovits published The Myth of the Negro Past, an exhaustive, anthropological research study which debunked the prevailing notion that Africans brought to America in chains were savages with no cultural traditions worth preserving. In fact, his seminal work proved that, quite to the contrary, black folks arrived with a rich heritage which remained readily reflected in the many Africanisms which had somehow survived the Middle Passage and centuries-long ordeal of slavery and subjugation.
Herskovits’ findings are critical in the debate about the use of Ebonics, which many simply misread as ungrammatical English in need of correction while others recognize the so-called “slanguage” as the product of the clash of African and European languages. Regardless, one thing we can all agree on is that blacks have made significant artistic contributions to America in an ongoing fashion, and one way this is reflected is in all the colorful words and phrases which they have coined generation after generation.
In The Hiptionary, Mahmoud El-Kati, Professor Emeritus in American History at Maclester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, legitimizes black dialect with alphabetical lists of both vocabulary words and phrases straight from the vernacular. His informative text also devotes a considerable amount of space to explaining the derivation of African-American speech patterns, thereby making the most of a teachable moment.
Perusing what is essentially a black dictionary, I was struck by how many different entries there were for buttocks (badunkadunk, boody, booty. boom-boom, junk in the trunk and stacked), Marijuana (blunt, bud, dope, grass, joint, pot and reefer), hairstyles (flattop, process, conk, do and Geri curl), coolness (copacetic, fresh, funky, groovy, hip, swinging and solid) and white people (Chuck, grey, honky, Mr. Charlie, ofay, peckawood, The Man and whitey).
Obviously, a lot of these terms now sound antiquated, having long since entered the mainstream and been replaced by variations on the theme intended to enable African-American culture to remain unique by frequently refreshing itself. Kudos to Professor El-Kati for crafting an endlessly entertaining and informative treatise which simultaneously provides a bonus service by helping some of us squares update our linguistically-challenged lexicons with a little fresh swag.
You feelin’ me, dog?

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