The Corner

Bae in The Dock

Writing in the Guardian (of course!), Robin Boylorn, assistant professor of interpersonal and intercultural communication at the University of Alabama:

While “bae” only made its way to mainstream parlance in the last few years, it is a word that most black folk have been intimately familiar with for decades. Its etymology was unclear, but its meanings and nuances are deeply understood in context. “What’s up, bae?” “That’s my bae,” etc., have been ways of staking claim and announcing intimacy between oneself and one’s (sometimes prospective) lover. Bae is also used as a term of endearment and affection for someone with whom there is no romantic involvement or interest (not unlike “honey” or “sweetheart” is used in Southern dialogue), as in “Hey bae, can you pass me that plate?”

And then Pharrell put it in a song, Miley Cyrus did a cameo, and it gained the attention of mainstream media. Suddenly there were articles attempting to define the word “bae”, otherwise reputable businesses began implementing “bae” in their social media ad campaigns, and everybody and they mama started using it. At which point it was declared overused by organs of upper-class white folk media like Time magazine.

Fair enough: white people’s adoption of the term distorted it to the point of misuse and meaninglessness. What was once a word born of the beautifully eclectic black Southern laziness of the tongue and a shortened version of baby, became a catchall term for anything from inanimate objects to food. The reference to affection was consistent but bae was used to describe everything from one’s (desired or actual) significant other to pancakes. “That’s bae”, a student swooned, glancing at a picture of J Cole during a discussion of black masculinity last summer in class. “These cupcakes are bae”, I read in a Facebook post attached to a picture of a delicious-looking dessert not many months later. And just like that, the shelf life of bae in the public imagination expired and the gatekeepers of mainstream language decided that it must be banned.

Cultural appropriation at its best, steals, reduces, overuses and then disposes of words like so much bathwater. The linguist Jane H Hill defines language appropriation as “a type of complex cultural borrowing that involves a dominant group’s ‘theft’ of aspects of a target group’s language.” Hill claims that the ‘theft’ adds value to white identity while further marginalizing nondominant groups. This cultural “borrowing” of black language and phraseology happens regularly, allowing non-black folk to “try on” black culture through the use of African American English vernacular and slang without having to “put on” the cultural consequences of actually being black in a culture conditioned to devalue and dismiss it.

As Hill claims, language appropriation is further problematic because it gives dominant groups control over the language. Dominant groups get to decide, for example, when and if certain words are worth appropriation, when and how the words should be used, and then when the word becomes cliché, overused and therefore passé. And often in the process, as happened with “bae”, the dominant group ends up changing the meaning or pronunciation of words entirely….

Not to worry, though, everything ought to end up OK:

So, what happens when mainstream culture decides to dispose of a word stolen from black language and then used to the point of saturation in popular culture? Nothing. The word may lose its novelty so that those who appropriated it stop saying or using it, but the word won’t disappear or lose its utility in the black community. We will go on saying bae. We will say it to our lovers in casual moments at home, and to our children to be endearing. We will say it in the grocery store, at the movie theatre and across church pews on Sunday mornings as a substitute for names. We will say it to each other – as we have always done – lovingly, reverently and mindfully. And with any luck, the word will settle back into its original meaning, sans the unsolicited remix of dominant white culture.

Sans?  It looks like there’s a bit of ‘appropriation’ going on there, Dr. Boylorn, not there’s anything wrong with that: Language is a magpie edifice, and one that is continuously being built, torn down and reworked. That’s always how it has been and always how it will be, but it’s sad—and when you stop to think about, more than sad— to see what begins as a subtle piece of observation end up so distorted by the perspectives of the grim little funhouse-mirror world that is today’s academy.

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