I WAS SURPRISED TO READ TODAY, March the 23rd, that according to the website On this Day in History “the man responsible for unraveling the mystery behind “OK” was an American linguist named Allen Walker Read. An English professor at Columbia University, Read dispelled a host of erroneous theories on the origins of “OK,” ranging from the name of a popular Army biscuit (Orrin Kendall) to the name of a Haitian port famed for its rum (Aux Cayes) to the signature of a Choctaw chief named Old Keokuk. Whatever its origins, “OK” has become one of the most ubiquitous terms in the world, and certainly one of America’s greatest lingual exports.”
The fact of the matter is that one has to betake oneself to West Africa and visit Senegal – its capital is Dakar, where Wolof is spoken, and that’s the language which inspired a slew of “American” slang words. To clarify, Arabic is the language of the educated people there; French, the “tourist” language, and Wolof the language of the villages, which happen to be inhabited by the most creative – linguistically speaking – of the lot!
I first became aware of Wolof when I visited Dakar for a few days in 1957 en route to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from New Delhi, India, for an international Piano Competition. One of the first things I learned was the Wolof word for “yes” – waaw and more emphatically waaw kay, the origin according to David Dalby (Reader in West African Languages, SOAS, University of London) of today’s ubiquitous Okay and O.K. Subsequently, when I got home to India, I dug deeper and became aware of several other Americanisms that may once have been Africanisms.
Decades later, when my family moved to Englewood, New Jersey, US, I wrote the following piece for The Messenger, the monthly newsletter of September 2010 of St. Paul’s Church:
‘DEGGA’ —Americanisms Rooted in Africa!
by Azim L. Mayadas
Published: August 27, 1995 by The New York Times
IN HER ESSAY “Performing Art Is Always Theater” [ August 6, 1995] Margo
Jefferson translates 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 several Americanisms that may
once have been Africanisms. 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.
One of our parishioners at St. Paul’s Church, Johanne Gambrill, happened to read that article of mine in The Messenger about Wolof and responded by e-mail with great enthusiasm as follows:
IN 1961, I WAS A PARTICIPANT in Operation Crossroads-Africa. Two hundred college students and other young post-university students were chosen to work in countries in Africa in groups of about 12. My group, which was the United States in microcosm, representing many religions and races, male and female, was located in Senegal.
Forty kilometers south of Dakar is a village called Popenguine where we built a school. Our 12 African counterparts spoke French, Arabic and Wolof and some English. We communicated in French with the African students. With the villagers we used words from many languages. We learned some Wolof.
The children were generally puzzled, so we drew pictures in the dirt to explain what we wanted to say, and they drew pictures for us. In the evenings after work, we had lectures. One night we would speak in English and it was translated into French. The Africans spoke French and it was translated into English, even though we had all become fluent in both languages!
Dakar looked a lot like DC. We landed in Dakar and spent a week there. The government had just had a change of ministers and didn’t know who we were! After a week we were kicked out of the country and went to the next door neighbor, Mali.
We were taken in by some Catholic nuns who fed us and arranged trips (I use the term loosely) to places around the capital, Bamako. Two weeks later, we were invited back to Senegal and sent to the village of Popenguine to build a school. Popenguine is in the middle of nowhere, as are most of the villages.
We had a spectacular experience, one that has allowed me to see the world through different eyes and has allowed me to head projects in the school where I last taught for 11 years, including running an Africa Day.
References: David Dalby (Reader in West African Languages, SOAS, U of London); My Diary
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