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NBC’s “The Marriage Ref” Highlights Lexical Discrepancies between AAE and SAE

April 13, 2010


Tracy Morgan Gives us a Vocabulary Lesson on "The Marriage Ref"

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

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, 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.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Ayeska permalink*
    April 13, 2010 5:07 pm

    Ha-ha, that’s too funny!
    I always felt “thick” was a compliment –in my own real-world linguistic experiences the term has become a synonym for voluptuous. or curvaceous.
    It’s interesting how many Standard American English terms have been redefined by the African American community; in a sense they’ve made those words their own.

  2. francescah permalink
    April 13, 2010 4:42 pm

    Tracy Morgan is hilarious!
    I think “thick” (in its AAE meaning) is a word that is in the midst of being appropriated into SAE. Younger generations seem to understand it in Smitherman’s or Urbandictionary’s definitions but older generations have probably not had as much exposure to this word in an AAE context and therefore misconstrue its meaning to mean “fat.”

  3. Amy permalink
    April 13, 2010 7:31 pm

    I would not have guessed that “thick” is a complement. If someone just used this word out of context, I would have interpreted it as “heavy,” though not necessarily “fat.” I wonder what age group of Standard American English (SAE) speakers are picking this vocab up? It would be interesting to see what would happen if you asked an SAE teenager versus an SAE middle aged person what they thought the word meant.

  4. Cara Shousterman permalink*
    April 18, 2010 3:35 pm

    Oh man I have been a part of so many misunderstandings because of this particular linguistic/cultural difference!

  5. RYAN permalink
    April 21, 2010 5:22 pm

    Thick has definitely taken on a new meaning with hip-hop and just black culture as whole increasing influence on standard american youth culture. This made me think of the scene in Money talks, when chris tucker tells charlie sheen’s fiance, heather locklear, that she looks “phat” in her dress. She looks like her world is about to crumble, lol.

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