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.
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.
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 anyhesitation, 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.
2. Trap/Trap Queen
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.
4. Squad, #SquadGoals
At some point this summer, Taylor Swift and her revolving door of bffs became synonymous with the idea of the squad. That’s fine, that’s great — it’s ultimately a pretty empowering idea that many women are using as a way to define solidarity. But gee, there sure are a lot of articles explaining what #squadgoals are without once acknowledging that “squad” is a black slang word and was originally tied to black solidarity — par for the course when it comes to the appropriation of AAVE.
Let it be known: Mariska Hargitay is a goddess who can do no wrong, but this Instagram post from a couple months ago is just too good an example of how #peakwhiteness can cause even the best to hilariously misuse a black slang. To be fair, though, “fleek” is probably the worst word on this list, no one ever really knew what it meant, and nobody really misses it. Enjoy, white people.
For some strange reason, there’s this myth, proliferated on social media platforms like Tumblr,that the word “fuckboy” is a trans slur. It is not. It is hard to understand how this false definition gained traction, but its existence is a testament to how little the origins or original meaning of certain black slang words are regarded. While some people are falsely labeling the word (which basically calls out dudes who ain’t shit), others describe the fuckboy as little more than a variation on the “bro” or the straight white boy texting.
7. Twerk/Nae Nae/All Black Dances Ever
Both “twerk” and more recently “nae nae” were taken over as soon as they became popularized after the release of the hit song “Watch Me” by Silento. Miley Cyrus was credited with discovering twerking, even though the song “Whistle While You Twerk” by the Ying Yang Twins came out in 2000, and there have been amazing twerk teams concentrated in Atlanta for years. Now, much like twerking, a persusal of the “whip and nae nae” dance on Youtube will bring up literally thousands of white people doing the dance with varying levels of uncoordination. The kids above are definitely doing it wrong, but they’re also adorable, so it’s OK.
8. Yassss/Yas Queen
One of the highlights of the last season of Broad City was the moment Ilana’s babysitting charge shouts “Yasss queen!” as she exits the scene. It’s also the moment many black people knew that “yassss queen” was done. Of course, “yassss” has been around for a while — Nicki Minaj even did a song called “Yass Bitch” with Soulja Boy. Above, she gives a rather refreshing definition of the word (or rather the pronunciation of the word), acknowledging that its roots are actually in the LGBT and drag communities (especially in the Atlanta gay scene). More on that later.
9. Bye Felicia
Vh1 actually had a show debut last year featuring two sassy black women teaching (mostly white women) how to be sassy, too. The show’s title: “Bye Felicia!” This two word phrase has had a whirlwhind couple of years (coming full circle in a controversial scene in the new “Straight Outta Compton” movie). What’s amazing though is that over the last year or so, so many white people and non-black people have used it (as a sassy dismissal) without actually knowing where it’s from: a brief scene (above) in the iconic 1995 black comedy, “Friday.”
The word basic is now associated with pumpkin spice lattes and Ugg boots. Words change, and amidst the myriad think pieces and “In Defense of Basic” articles that emerged last year, this particular word changed so fast that most people, including black people, forgot that the original meaning of “basic” was something more akin to, as writer Jesssa Barron aptlydescribes, “someone unsophisticated, extremely average, and still buys club dresses at Rainbow.”
11. Turn Up
In January 2010, the Atlanta rap group Travis Porter released the song “All the Way Turnt Up,” generally considered to be the first instance that the phrase “turn up!” was used. Above is the exact moment that “turn up” and “the function” passed away, thanks to those arbiters of black cool, Miley Cyrus and Macklemore.
12. No Shade
To be fair, we all get the side-eye for effectively commandeering this phrase and other terminology commonly used amongst black and Latino people in the LGBT community. It’s actually kind of amazing that “shade” was a question on an episode of Jeopardy, but it’s also a little unfortunate that many people’s first introduction to black gay slang (if they haven’t seen “Paris Is Burning”) is through shows like “Real Housewives of Atlanta,” where LGBT people are mostly tokenized. But “throwing shade,” “no tea, no shade,” “hunty,” and other words are now being used with wild abandon by mostly white women who don’t get it. “Yassss hunty you better read the tea the house down for the gawds no shade!” There’s a Tumblr dedicated to this concept: Little Hunty Things.