Two decades ago in her essay “Performing Art Is Always Theater” Margo Jefferson translated the *Wolof word “degga”—which was used as the title for the collaborative piece by Toni Morrison, Max Roach and Bill T. Jones—as “to understand.” It brings to my mind, especially during Black History Month, several Americanisms that may once have been Africanisms, but that the current generation both black and white is not privy to.
For example, “jive” had the original meaning among African-Americans of “misleading talk;” it can be compared to the Wolof “jev,” meaning “to talk disparagingly.” The slang words “hep,” “hip” and “hippie” have a basic sense of “aware” or “alert to what is going on.” In Wolof, the verb “hipi” means “to open one’s eyes.” The use of “cat” to mean “person,” as in “hep-cat” or “cool cat,” can be likened to the Wolof “kat,” used as an agent-suffix after verbs. “Hipi-kat” in Wolof means “a person who has opened his eyes.”
It would be rash to suggest that all such Americanisms can be attributed with certainty to Wolof, but the frequency of correlations is unlikely to be the result of mere chance.
*Wolof is a language spoken in West African Senegal: its capital is Dakar, which I visited in 1957 en route to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from New Delhi, India.