"keep shady"

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Thu Mar 1 19:43:21 UTC 2007

        [reaction of “the better sort of colored people” to John Brown’s
insurrection; our reporter] found them disposed to “keep shady” on the
subject, and it was hard to draw from them any opinion whatever on the
matter at issue.  This is a characteristic of the negro race, even in
the most trivial matters.  [a phrenological explanation of this quirk]
        NY Evening Express, October 19, 1859, p. 1, cols. 4-5

OED has no applicable sense under “shady”; it has the phrase from 1871,
(under “simmer”, verb, 1d) and 1897 (under “hang”, verb, II:20.

The Express was a vehemently anti-abolitionist newspaper.  All who are
surprised that one of “the better sort of colored people” would "keep
shady" when approached by a white man and asked for his opinion on
Harper's Ferry, please raise your hand.

I thought so.  Me neither.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern
Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

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

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