Using Dictionaries for Sociolinguistic Inquiry in the College Classroom

Katie Welch

University of North Texas at Dallas

In the 2014 TED Talk “What makes a word ‘real’?” Anne Curzan mentions that she requires that students teach her two new slang words each time her class meets, a practice that is often employed by U.S.-based linguistics professors eager to keep up with trends in American English. A few semesters later, having adopted this practice while teaching a course titled Language of Now, I stood before a group of first year college students who had enrolled in the course as a means of completing a core curriculum requirement and asked them to share some slang words with me.

On that particular day, one word that stood out to me was boojie [buʒi]. As was the case with most of the words shared, I was not familiar with this term. When I probed further, the student explained that she used it to mean ‘uppity’ or ‘acting fancier than you actually are’. Given that the definition closely matched a word I did know and that she pronounced it with a telltale [ʒ], I immediately responded, “Oh, so it’s like a clipping of bourgeois?” The student furrowed her eyebrows in confusion, and as I glanced around the room at the rest of the class, their facial expressions were also not communicating any awareness of what I was asking. I quickly explained why I believed the two words might be related and, sensing the class was rapidly losing interest, I moved on.  

Once I got back to my office, however, I did a quick search in the Oxford English Dictionary, which confirmed my suspicion that boojie (as well as its many alternate spellings such as bourgie and boujee) was indeed derived from the French borrowing bourgeois. Something that particularly caught my attention about the OED entry was that, in addition to the usage note that boojie was “slang, chiefly depreciative,” the definition indicated that it originated in the African American speech community. When I cross-checked with the Urban Dictionary, the many entries I found for boojie also identified it as an abbreviated form of bourgeois but seemed to indicate an expanded use outside of the Black community. Some entries confirmed its depreciative nature, but additional searching revealed that a 2016 hip hop song by the Migos titled Bad and Boujee had not only popularized the term but also reappropriated its use.

As I reflected on this etymology, I realized that boojie encompassed many principles that I wanted my students to learn in the Language of Now class:

  1. that many words in English are a result of language contact and borrowing,
  2. that new words are often derived from various word formation processes (such as clipping),
  3. that African American English is a common source of linguistic innovation, and
  4. that popularization of slang often changes the word’s original meaning.

I also recognized that the same process I had undertaken to discover the etymology of boojie – consulting a variety of dictionaries and word frequency search engines – was a skillset that I wanted my students to likewise possess. Inspired, I sat down and created a new assignment for our course.

At the heart of the assignment is an internet-based scavenger hunt in which students role play as if they were lexicographers tasked with identifying the origins of boojie. As the students read through the 4-page narrative, the story directs the reader toward internet resources of varying degrees of credibility from the Urban Dictionary to Google Trends to the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as other search engines and readings. In keeping with the scavenger hunt theme, each part of the assignment acts as a clue that unlocks new information that students must then evaluate as they try to piece their discoveries together into an integrated whole. For example, at one point in the narrative, students discover that Google NGram indicates that the earliest instance of boojie in print was in the 1920s. They are then directed to an article excerpt by Tom Dalzell from the Do You Speak American? website which discusses examples of slang words such as groovy and boss that seemed new at the time but were actually just recycled from previous generations. Dalzell’s article also explains that one of the common origins of slang words is in African American vernacular, and he lists numerous examples of how slang has been shaped “consistently and generously from the slang of the black American urban experience” as well as multiple examples of slang words that originated from 1920’s- and 30’s-era jazz musicians (Dalzell, 2019). At this point in the exercise, students have not yet learned that boojie originated in African American speech communities, so the article provides crucial background information for when they do ultimately read the OED entry and this fact is disclosed.

This style of pedagogy is often referred to as a “narrative learning environment” in which the structure of the narrative guides learners in their inquiry. Since this is most students’ first exposure to these dictionaries and search engines, the narrative serves to introduce them to critical background information about each resource but does so in a way that allows students to maintain their assumed roles as experienced lexicographers, as seen in the excerpt below.

As a linguist, you often use the Oxford English Dictionary to look up the etymology of words but had presumed that boojie would be too new to be in the dictionary. But, if it dates back to the 1920s, it just might be there, you think to yourself. You open another browser.

As you type in, your heart starts beating faster as you wonder what you will find. Could this slang term that you randomly overheard at a party actually have “made it” into the OED? As you type boojie into the search bar and click “go”, your heart skips a beat. It’s there! Or, wait. Is it? The word at the top of the page is spelled bourgie, not boojie or boojee. Is this the same word?

The narrative guides the learner in highly practical ways, such as giving the URL needed for the next part of the hunt. Yet, the phrase “As a linguist, you often use the OED to . . .” keeps the learners positioned as experts while also giving necessary information about what purpose this dictionary serves. The narrative also guides the students’ thinking throughout the research process and provides a vehicle for them to make sense of the facts that they are gathering from each resource. Little clues such as “It’s there! Or, wait. Is it?” have a dual role in sense-making, the former communicating excitement at finding the entry in the OED and the latter highlighting the need to pay close attention to the entry because the bourgie spelling is different from previous results.

An important feature of this assignment is that while students are reading the narrative, they are also actively responding throughout. Every few paragraphs the students are instructed to pause their work and write information they have discovered. The responses grow in rigor and complexity throughout, with early tasks requiring that students simply report findings while later tasks ask the learners to triangulate information from multiple sources. The assignment concludes with the budding lexicographers composing a mock email to their boss in which they synthesize everything they have learned into a cohesive etymology. Determining boojie’s history requires that students grapple with sometimes-conflicting information. For example, Google NGram lists the earliest print appearance in the 1920s, while the OED cites a 1960s origin. And while the Urban Dictionary does accurately refer to the bourgeois connection, students learn through the assignment why this website may not be as reliable as other online dictionaries, thus necessitating the need to cross-reference.

This assignment has been quite successful, and students report how much they enjoy working through the narrative to solve the boojie mystery. Part of the assignment’s appeal is in the realization that “new” words sometimes have much lengthier and more storied pasts than we realize. Some students are particularly drawn to the sociolinguistic aspect of the African American community’s often-overlooked contributions to the English language. For first year college students who are used to a more prescriptive K12 curriculum, there is intrigue in the inclusion of the Urban Dictionary – a resource generally not sanctioned for academic use. From an instructor’s perspective, however, the beauty of this assignment lies in the fact that learners leave the class no longer dependent on their professor standing in front of them and making conjectures about the origins of new-to-me slang words. Instead, these budding lexicographers are now in possession of their own etymology toolkits and can confidently research any word they please.

Thanks to Connie Eble for taking charge of the Education Column.