[Ads-l] Etymology of wack / fly / kat (or "cat")

Z Sohna zrice3714 at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jun 18 14:18:02 EDT 2021

I wrote an article (several years ago, actually) titled "Traces of Negro
Dutch in the Language of Native Black American", in which I discuss the
etymology of a few words/idioms that feature prominently in Native Black
American Language - including "wack", "fly", and "cat". I decided to
publish the article to the linguistics archive to make it publicly

Link: https://lingbuzz.net/lingbuzz/006034

I contend that the Native Black American *wack/wak* (definitions listed
below) is ultimately derived from the Continental Dutch *zwak* of identical

*wack/wak* *n* 1: inferior 2: unconvincing, tenuous 3: wimpy, puny,
small/slight in build 4: poor (i.e., “unsatisfactory”) 5: low-quality 6:
faint-hearted, cowardly, not courageous, not bold, not funky, anemic 7: not
powerful 8: raggedy, shabby 9: rickety 10: flimsy 11: soft 12: pathetic 13:
insipid, watered-down 14: insubstantial 15: unjust, low in moral character
16: bad (at something).

One of the issues is that the major dictionaries contain definitions that
are quite honestly so limited and simplistic that I at least am led to
believe that the definitions themselves were gleaned by mere inference (on
the part of the lexicographers) and not by native speaker knowledge or
in-depth questioning of the relevant population. This is especially
apparent for the Native Black American *wack/wak*.

A certain dictionary claims *wack* was popularized by Haring's "Crack is
Wack" mural, despite the fact that *wack* (with the above semantic meaning)
was very much current among Native Black Americans in New York and New
Jersey prior to the mural's actual existence. (The late Haring painted the
mural in 1986.) This currency told me that the origin was likely colonial
and deeply rooted in America's history of chattel slavery. The African
languages provided no potential points of origin that were convincing, at
least to me. The New York/New Jersey location of the relevant ethnic group
(Native Black Americans) and the fact that they were held captive and
enslaved by the Dutch in the former colony of Nieuw Nederland ("New
Netherland") prior to its takeover by the British let me know that I should
be looking at Dutch as the potential point of origin.

Zola Sohna

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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