NBC’s “The Marriage Ref” Highlights Lexical Discrepancies between AAE and SAE
On this past Thursday’s episode of “The Marriage Ref,” in which three panelists debate arguments between married couple, panelist and comedian Tracy Morgan and host Tom Papa had the following to say about an argument had by the Hankersons, in which the wife took issue with her husband’s constant fishing trips (this is an excerpt; see the whole conversation here, or the entire episode at NBC.com):
TM: “What is he fishing for when you got a nice, thick woman like that? You should make some more babies, man…”
TP: “I don’t know what you just said… If ever there was a doubt that there is a difference between black guys and white guys– I can’t believe you can call your women ‘thick!'”
Papa was struck by Morgan’s use of the word “thick,” which, to a Standard American English speaker, could easily be misconstrued to mean “fat.” However, in African American English, it “describes a muscular, large-sized build,” as defined by Geneva Smitherman in her book Black Talk (Houghton Mifflin Co, 2000). On UrbanDictionary.com, one can find a whole list of similar definitions, among which, “A woman with a perfect body, filled-in in places that are, by nature, designed to attract the opposite sex, such as the thighs, the hips, the breasts, and the most lovely part of all, the booty.”
What Papa took to be derrogatory, was clearly supposed to be a compliment on Morgan’s part.
And this is only the beginning. There is a whole lexicon of words used in AAE that are unfamiliar to SAE speakers, even if they are words that occur in both dialects. While, more often than not, this does not effect two speakers from understanding one another, it can at times cause a confusion.
As Smitherman writes in the introduction of Black Talk, “The African American Oral Tradition is rooted in a belief in the power of the Word. The Africanconcept of ‘Nommo,’ the Word, is believed to be the force of life itself.” As a result, speakers with the best verbal skills are praised, and word-coining, or redefinition of existing words, is fairly common.