Harvard University-based historian and Finding Your Roots host Henry Louis Gates Jr. will be the editor-in-chief of Oxford’s new dictionary entitled the Oxford Dictionary of African American English.
This dictionary, slated to debut in 2025, will provide a comprehensive collection of words and phrases created and used by Black Americans, past and present.
Gates Jr., Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, announced the project officially in an interview with the New York Times.
“Just the way Louis Armstrong took the trumpet and turned it inside out from the way people played European classical music,” Gates Jr. said. “Black people took English and “reinvented it, to make it reflect their sensibilities and to make it mirror their cultural selves.”
“Words with African origins such as ‘ ‘goober,’ ‘gumbo’ and ‘okra’ survived the Middle Passage along with our African ancestors,” Gates Jr. said. “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 … over the last few hundred years.”
To quote the New York Times:
Resources could also include books like “Cab Calloway’s Cat-ologue: a Hepster’s Dictionary,” a collection of words used by musicians, including “beat” to mean tired; “Dan Burley’s Original Handbook of Harlem Jive,” published in 1944; and “Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner,” published in 1994.
Researchers can look to recorded interviews with formerly enslaved people, Salazar said, and to music, such as the lyrics in old jazz songs. Salazar said the project’s editors also plan to crowdsource information, with call outs on the Oxford website and on social media, asking Black Americans what words they’d like to see in the dictionary and for help with historical documentation.
“Maybe there’s a diary in your grandmother’s attic that has evidence of this word,” Salazar said.
In addition to word and phrase definitions, the Oxford Dictionary of African American English will also provide also where they came from and how they emerged.
“You wouldn’t normally think of a dictionary as a way of telling the story of the evolution of the African American people, but it is,” Gates said. “If you sat down and read the dictionary, you’d get a history of the African American people from A to Z.”