"Au fait"

Cohen, Gerald Leonard gcohen at UMR.EDU
Mon Sep 3 04:27:03 UTC 2007

See my item "Black Slang _Ofay_ 'White Person' Derives From _Au Fait_ 'Socially Proper, Genteel'", in _Studies in Slang, Part VI, authored/edited by Gerald Leonard Cohen and Barry A. Popik.Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1999, pp. 48-51.(earlier version in Comments on Etymology, Feb. 1994, pp. 9-11.)
The semantic development was: "au fait" socially proper; genteel" (in Louisiana French!) to "white person."
Cf. Duke Ellington's comment (_Music Is My Mistress_, 1973, p. 12): "When I first went to Europe on the _Olympic_ in 1933, I felt so au fait with all that silverware on the table."  
 Barry Popik contributed a very helpful March 14, 1896 cartoon with "au fait." 
The poem Doug cites below is interesting, but I'd like to see what else turns upbefore signing on to the poem's being significant for the history of "ofay."  My initial reaction is that it's not necessary to invoke the poem in order to explain the semantic development (in the speech of blacks) "socially proper/correct" to "white person." How many features in black slang of the first part of the 20th century were produced by poems in newspapers? Btw, HDAS has 1925 as the first attestation of "ofay" and the poem is from 1897.  
But a fresh look based on new material is always good.
Gerald Cohen


From: American Dialect Society on behalf of Douglas G. Wilson
Sent: Sun 9/2/2007 10:07 PM
Subject: "Au fait"

A while back I speculated that "ofay" = "white [person]" is derived
from "au fait" in the sense "fashionable"/"proper" or so, a
distinctively English-language word in this sense AFAIK (although it
may have thought itself French). At least one other person (Gerald
Cohen) had put forth the same hypothesis (or a very similar one) much
earlier. The exact semantic connection is not clear, however,
although various more-or-less plausible scenarios are available.

I quote the beginning of an untitled (at least in this printing)
poem: from N'archive:


_Trenton [NJ] Evening Times_, 30 July 1897: p. '4':

<<W. J. H. in Phila. North American: / Oh, lynchings are au fait / In
Dixey! / They've a hang-up every day / In Dixey! / The elite are
always there / ....>>


The poem is of course sarcastic and harshly derogatory toward "Dixey"
(or its "elite" anyway).

"Au fait" appears in the first line; its pronunciation (with [the
expected] second syllable stress) is pretty much specified.

Somebody with bigger databases than mine might check to see whether
there is evidence of wide propagation ... e.g., maybe the poem was
quoted in the _Freeman_ or some similar publication.

This poem or some similar item may have been a 'vector' whereby "au
fait" came to be used for "white people" (or maybe [transiently] for
some subset of white people).

-- Doug Wilson


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

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