Popular words used in Black culture for centuries are making their way into Oxford’s newest dictionary.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., historian and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, has announced he will serve as editor-in-chief of the Oxford Dictionary of African American English, a new glossary of language that will contain popular phrases used by historical Black figures and modern-day Black Americans.
“Just the way Louis Armstrong took the trumpet and turned it inside out from the way people played European classical music,” Gates told the New York Times, Black people took English and “reinvented it, to make it reflect their sensibilities and to make it mirror their cultural selves.”
According to the dictionary’s site, the project was a joint venture of the Oxford University Press and the Hutchins Center. Gates Jr. told The New York Times that the idea for the new dictionary came about when the Oxford Press asked him to collaborate on their existing dictionaries, leading him to propose a more ambitious project.
Funded by grants from the Mellon and Wagner Foundations, the dictionary stems from a three-year research project led by a diverse team of researchers and lexicographers whose focus is to preserve the vocabulary of African-Americans. The new dictionary, which Gates said is heavily influenced by “words invented by African Americans,” will serve as an authoritative record of African-American English.
“Words with African origins such as ‘ ‘goober,’ ‘gumbo’ and ‘okra’ survived the Middle Passage along with our African ancestors,” Gates Jr. explained. “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.”
The first copy of the Oxford Dictionary of African American English is expected to be released in 2025.