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What Words Will Go in the First-Ever African American English Dictionary? (Video)

Harvard University professor and historian, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. speaks on a panel at the Television Critics Association Press Tour
Oxford Dictionary of African American English editor, Harvard University professor and historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

*Definitions for “kitchen,” “ring shout” and “cakewalk” will be among the words listed in the new “Oxford Dictionary of African American English,” to be issued by Oxford University Press in March 2025, per the New York Times.

The project’s editor, historian Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., told the Times that researchers and editors from the Harvard University Hutchins Center for African & African American Research will contribute to the dictionary. He spoke about the importance of inclusivity and word representation in dictionaries.

“Everybody has an urgent need for self-expression,” Gates explained. “You need to be able to communicate what you feel and what you think to other people in your speech community. That is why we refashioned the English language.”

According to Gates, the words will also be added to Oxford English Dictionary.

“That is the best of both worlds” he explained. “Because we want to show how Black English is part of the larger of Englishes, as they say, spoken around the world.”

The public can contribute to the collection by submitting relevant words here.

During a recent online presentation, those linked to the project revealed that 100 words have already been selected for inclusion. Below are 10 of the definitions and etymologies included in the soon-to-be-published dictionary and revealed by the Times, followed by video of the online event.

bussin (adjective and participle): 1. Especially describing food: tasty, delicious. Also more generally: impressive, excellent. 2. Describing a party, event, etc.: busy, crowded, lively. (Variant forms: bussing, bussin’.)
grill (noun): A removable or permanent dental overlay, typically made of silver, gold or another metal and often inset with gemstones, which is worn as jewelry.

Promised Land (n.): A place perceived to be where enslaved people and, later, African Americans more generally, can find refuge and live in freedom. (Etymology: A reference to the biblical story of Jewish people seeking freedom from Egyptian bondage.)
chitterlings (n. plural): A dish made from pig intestines that are typically boiled, fried or stuffed with other ingredients. Occasionally also pig intestines as an ingredient. (Variant forms: chitlins, chittlins, chitlings, chitterlins.)

kitchen (n.): The hair at the nape of the neck, which is typically shorter, kinkier and considered more difficult to style.

cakewalk (n.): 1. A contest in which Black people would perform a stylized walk in pairs, typically judged by a plantation owner. The winner would receive some type of cake. 2. Something that is considered easily done, as in This job is a cakewalk.
old school (adj.): Characteristic of early hip-hop or rap music that emerged in New York City between the late 1970s to the mid 1980s, which often includes the use of couplets, funk and disco samples, and playful lyrics. Also used to describe the music and artists of that style and time period. (Variant form: old skool.)

pat (verb): 1. transitive. To tap (the foot) in rhythm with music, sometimes as an indication of participation in religious worship. 2. intransitive. Usually of a person’s foot: to tap in rhythm with music, sometimes to demonstrate participation in religious worship.

Aunt Hagar’s children (n.): A reference to Black people collectively. (Etymology: Probably a reference to Hagar in the Bible, who, with her son, Ishmael, was cast out by Sarah and Abraham [Ishmael’s father], and became, among some Black communities, the symbolic mother of all Africans and African Americans and of Black womanhood.)

ring shout (n.): A spiritual ritual involving a dance where participants follow one another in a ring shape, shuffling their feet and clapping their hands to accompany chanting and singing. The dancing and chanting gradually intensify and often conclude with participants exhibiting a state of spiritual ecstasy.

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