'The Hiptionary' honors African-American linguistic usage

Mahmoud El-Kati
Writer and lecturer Mahmoud El-Kati argues that while African-American speech is used by everyone in America, it does not get the repect it deserves.
Image courtesey Papyrus Publishing

If you have ever wondered about the origins of many of the words and phrases Americans use every day, Mahmoud El-Kati has an answer. His new book, "The Hiptionary," examines the influence of African-American linguistic usage on U.S. culture as a whole.

El-Kati taught history at Macalester College in St Paul for many years. As a result, he is well aware of the power of language.

"This 'Hiptionary' has been in my head for about 20 years," he said. "Thinking about it, talking about it, and finally I tried to do it."

"The Hiptionary" is a collection of essays and definitions El-Kati uses to explain the origins of different words. He said many of us use terms essentially unchanged since they were brought over from West Africa in the times of slavery.

"Okra, banjo -- people use those words every day," he said. "Gumbo, OK. Booba has been corrupted to mean 'bubba,' but it is a corrupted Yoruba word."

Then El-Kati gets on to neologisms, those words which have been given new meanings through adaptation and augmentation in the way they are used.

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"It almost passes human understanding how a people can be so despised and yet artistically esteemed."

"Cool has been reinvented not to mean cool. It's an attitude, not ice," he said. "Joint -- I don't know how many times 'joint' has changed. Juke joint, joint can be the jailhouse. Joint can be smoking marijuana. Now joint is a song, people like this joint as opposed to that joint."

The list is goes on and on -- bag, chill, rap, cook, and of course, hip.

Mahmoud El-Kati said he wants to inform people about linguistic roots. And he also wants to start a larger discussion. He said it's time to acknowledge there are different types of American English.

"Don't think that a child is dumb because he pronounces 'ask' as 'axe.' There is nothing wrong with that," he said. "We know it's not standard English, and you don't want people not to speak standard English. But I don't want the teacher thinking that because somebody says 'Don't axe me anything,' that he's not smart. What you are doing is questioning his culture, because that's how his mother talks or his father talks. It didn't come out of the sky, and that's not slang."

El-Kati has long argued that people are the product of their culture more than anything else. He says language is an expression of culture, and that American linguistic usage is, as he puts it, Africanized.

"African-Americans have been central to the development of what we call American culture," he said. "That is undeniable. We need to stop playing games around this idea of race, that this belongs over here because it's white and this is black. Everybody in this country uses some black English."

El-Kati points back to the way spirituals became a part of the larger musical culture during slavery. It's a pattern of cultural influence and adoption which continues.

Other examples include the blues, jazz, rock and roll and now hip-hop, which El-Katie describes as the largest ecumenical movement in the world.

He argues, though, that by and large, African Americans aren't credited for their influence. He dedicates his book to the first black Rhodes Scholar, Alain Locke, and quotes his writing.

"It almost passes human understanding how a people can be so despised and yet artistically esteemed. So ostracized and yet culturally influential. So degraded and yet a dominant editorial force in American life," Locke wrote.

"That pretty much says it for me, the peculiar relationship that African people have to the American Republic," he said.

El-Kati said he doesn't expect everyone to agree with him. Indeed he hopes his book will generate discussion.

He will read from "The Hiptionary" at the Magers and Quinn bookstore in Minneapolis' Uptown neighborhood on Thursday at 7 p.m.