What Does Bussin Mean—and 9 Other Words in the Brand-New African American English Dictionary?
There’s a new dictionary in town, and it’s about to give you a better understanding of the words you say every day
How many times have you used the word cool today? Or maybe you dissed someone jokingly and called them a goober for not being hip. You probably didn’t give it much thought at the time (or ever), but four of those words have African American origins that go back decades or even centuries. This evolution of language is the focus of the forthcoming Oxford Dictionary of African American English, which recently provided a sneak peek of 10 words that will be included in its first edition.
“Every speaker of American English borrows heavily from words invented by African Americans, whether they know it or not,” Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., editor-in-chief of the dictionary, said in a press release about the project. Yes, new words are constantly being added to the Oxford English Dictionary, but this companion dictionary compiled by Black authors, editors and scholars will feature terms that African Americans have grown up hearing from parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles. These words have deep roots in African and African American culture, and they have become embedded in American language as a whole.
With society’s new focus on the BIPOC community in the last few years—which has led, in part, to conversations about how to be anti-racist and the establishing of Juneteenth as a national holiday—the time was right for this dictionary. So, what is it all about, and why is a reference book like this such a big deal? Here’s what you need to know.
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What is the Oxford Dictionary of African American English?
The Oxford Dictionary of African American English is exactly what it sounds like: a version of the storied Oxford English Dictionary, but one that focuses on the impact that African Americans have had on the English we all use today. A three-year collaborative effort between Oxford University Press and Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American research, the dictionary is still a work in progress and won’t be published until 2025. A team of linguists, researchers, editors, lexicographers and scholars are working on the project, with Gates at the helm as editor-in-chief.
Gates notes that while dictionaries of African American vocabulary do exist, this one is unique in a very significant way: It is the first to “undertake a large-scale, systematic study, based on historical principles, of the myriad contributions that African Americans have made to the shape and structure of the English language that Americans speak today.” In short, it takes a closer look at these contributions to language in America, including where and how they originated, and gives credit where credit is due.
What types of words will this dictionary include?
Expected to contain around 1,000 words, the Oxford Dictionary of African American English will cover more than three centuries’ worth of language—from Middle Passage (the voyage by ship of enslaved Africans to America, starting around 1700) through the present day. This comprehensive reference book will include words about (and from) music, food, religion, literature, social media, slang and everything noteworthy pertaining to Black culture. And just like any other dictionary, each entry will list the meaning, spelling, pronunciation, history and real-world usage so that readers can fully understand the word.
“We are hoping this will be fairly comprehensive, extensive, broad and going beyond just sort of the slang terms that people typically think of when they think about African American English, and just show the full breadth of the vocabulary,” said sociolinguist Tracey Weldon, one of the dictionary’s executive editors.
Have some ideas you think should be included? Fill out a submission form on the dictionary’s official website.
The first 10 words from the dictionary and what they mean
The first 10 words touch on experiences many Black people in this country have in common. For example, being a kid and anxiously waiting while your beautician approaches you with the daunting task of taking care of that “kitchen” of yours with a hot comb. Or being in an actual kitchen and digging into a meal that was “bussin.” As you may have guessed, those are two of the words listed in the Oxford Dictionary of African American English. But if this wasn’t your cultural background, you might be wondering, What does bussin mean, and what is a kitchen in that context? We have the answers, along with the list of the first 10 words shared by the editors.
bussin (adj. and participle): 1. Especially describing food: tasty, delicious. Also more generally: impressive, excellent. 2. Describing a party, event, etc.: busy, crowded, lively.
grill (n.): 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.): A dish made from pig intestines that are typically boiled, fried or stuffed with other ingredients.
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.
pat (v.): 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.
Why weren’t these words just added to the regular Oxford English Dictionary?
According to the authors, this is a chance to study the origins and effects of African American English in a singular way—and let it take the spotlight instead of being an afterthought. This reference book will help provide a deeper understanding of how language from African Americans has evolved and expanded throughout history while referencing historically relevant information and contextualizing the words’ origins.
“It will be much more expansive and inclusive of the language as opposed to [just] some words here and there,” Sonja Lanehart, a linguistics professor at the University of Arizona (who was not involved with the project), told NPR in 2022, when the project was announced. “And instead of just defining or spelling the words, the project will also provide some historical context. The etymology of a word and the history of the word is extremely important … in understanding how a language has developed, evolved, and who’s been a part of it.”
Why is this dictionary important, according to experts?
Black Americans have made a lasting cultural impact on this country, thanks to the contributions of writers, actors, musicians, scholars and so many more, but the origin of most terms is unclear, since there is a lack of historical documentation for the African American language. This has created both debates and misinterpretations, according to the University of Oregon’s Online Resources for African American Language. This dictionary will clear up that confusion. Plus, just like Black History Month shouldn’t be limited to a single month, African American language shouldn’t be relegated to the sidelines.
As Gates says, this dictionary will “compile, fully and systematically, the richness of African American English, using the lexicographical tools and historical principles that the Oxford English Dictionary embodies.” And it will do that with examples from Black literature and conversation, which will keep the spotlight where it belongs—on African American language and culture.
- The Oxford Dictionary of African American English: “About the Oxford Dictionary of African American English (ODAAE)”
- CNN: “Large-scale study will culminate in the Oxford Dictionary of African American English, a dream come true for historian Henry Louis Gates Jr.”
- NPR: “A new dictionary will document the lexicon of African American English”
- University of Oregon: “Online Resources for African American Language”