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Large-scale study will culminate in the Oxford Dictionary of African American English, a dream come true for historian Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Large-scale study will culminate in the Oxford Dictionary of African American English, a dream come true for historian Henry Louis Gates Jr.
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Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Statue Of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation

Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrives at the Statue Of Liberty Museum Opening Celebration at Battery Park on May 15, 2019 in New York City.



CNN
 — 

Oxford University Press has announced a large-scale study that will culminate in the Oxford Dictionary of African American English, the brainchild of historian Henry Louis Gates that will focus on the contributions that African Americans have made to the English language.

The dictionary will be released in 2025 and is expected to include about 1,000 words.

“The editing of the Oxford Dictionary of African American English will realize a dream I’ve nurtured since I first studied the pages of Samuel Johnson’s ‘Dictionary of the English Language,’” Gates said in a press release. “Every speaker of American English borrows heavily from words invented by African Americans, whether they know it or not.”

Evidence for every entry, according to Gates, will be gathered from diverse sources like novels, academic research papers, newspapers and magazines, song lyrics, recipes and social media. Researchers have encouraged the public to make entry suggestions.

Oxford University Press last month announced they have completed the first 100 word entries and released 10 of them.

The 10 words include:

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.

Some linguists and lexicographers agree that African American language and culture deserves its own dictionary. Tracey Weldon, a sociolinguist currently working at the education executive search firm Greenwood Asher & Associates and one of dictionary’s executive editors, illustrated the project’s importance.

“The African American speech community has contributed so much to American English, but so much of it has been invisible to the public at large,” Weldon said. “This is an opportunity to just acknowledge those contributions and educate the public about the various types of words, the breadth of the vocabulary and some information about its history.”

Weldon pointed out words that are used in everyday language. Words such as “yam,” “okra,” “shout- out,” “lit” and “woke” all began in the African American community and became part of the American lexicon.

“We are hoping this will be fairly comprehensive, extensive broad and going beyond just sort of the slang term that people typically think of when they think about African American English, and just show the full breadth of the vocabulary,” Weldon said.

The choice of words will vary from the middle passage to the plantation era, but the dictionary will also include popular words from current social media platforms such as Black Twitter.

“We are looking for variety and breadth, so not everything will necessarily make its way to the first publication. But we want to hear from the public, so the final version is a representation of a community’s perception,” Weldon said.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the period from which the dictionary will draw words.





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