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Education

Henry Louis Gates leads project to create Oxford Dictionary of African American English

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Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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The Oxford University Press is working with Harvard University on a three-year research project to create the Oxford Dictionary of African American English (ODAAE).

A diverse team of lexicographers with the Oxford English Dictionary and researchers from Harvard’s network of scholars of African American studies aim to create a dictionary that will illuminate the history, meaning, and significance of this body of language.

Every speaker of American English borrows heavily from words invented by African Americans, whether they know it or not. Words with African origins such as ‘ ‘goober’, ‘gumbo’ and ‘okra’ survived the Middle Passage along with our African ancestors.  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, neologisms that emerged out of the Black Experience in this country, over the last few hundred years.  And while many scholars have compiled dictionaries of African American usage and vocabulary, no one has yet had the resources 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.  This project, at long last, will address that need.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., Editor-in-Chief

Alongside meaning, pronunciation, spelling, usage, and history, each entry will be illustrated by quotations taken from real examples of language in use.  This will serve to acknowledge the contributions of African-American writers, thinkers, and artists, as well as everyday African Americans, to the evolution of the US English lexicon and the English lexicon as a whole.

The project is funded in parts by grants from the Mellon and Wagner Foundations, and the dictionary is currently slated for release in 2025.

To learn more about the groundbreaking project, visit The Oxford English Dictionary website.

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