Words don’t just have literal meanings. They also say a lot about cultures, history, and geography, usually without us realising. The study of this is called etymology and it’s a lot more interesting than it sounds if you are the curious type. Imagine the history behind words like ‘Yardie’, ‘BAME’ or ‘Coon’.
This is what Jeffrey Boakye, writer of Hold Tight, has done in his latest work Black, Listed. Not straying from his usual experimental non-fiction format, this book explores words that are used to describe, define, denigrate or celebrate black people. [Pausing the story Boakye- style, I wanted to mention that the word ‘denigrate’, meaning ‘to criticise unfairly’, is from Latin and it means ‘to blacken/make dark’ in Middle English. Says a lot, doesn’t it?]
Boakye takes a scalpel to each of his carefully selected words, cautiously but thoroughly exposing their cultural evolution and social impact. He uses personal anecdotes, historical facts, current affairs and pop culture to understand what people are really saying when they use them. Words aren’t neutral or unbiased. They each have an agenda and carry a lot of baggage. What does this baggage usually mean for Black British people?
Black,Listed is divided into themes such as ‘historical descriptors’ and ‘terms of endearment’. The ‘loaded terms’ section is one of the most interesting. It includes all those words that give you bad vibes when used to describe black people, but you often can’t pinpoint why. Boakye discusses the usual racial slurs like the ‘N-word’ but also more interesting words such as ‘facety’, ‘baby father’, ‘woke’, ‘lightie’ and ‘roadman’. There’s also a section for ‘late’, which jokes about Black People Time: “Presumed lateness can turn punctuality into a strange game of cat and mouse.” Too accurate.
There is a dramatic difference in gravity of some of the terms: Wog, Coon, and Pengting somehow sit together in the same book. It works because Boakye adds humour to the deeper subjects but takes a more serious look at the words that seem relatively frivolous.
“I know I come across as this plucky, sometimes nonchalant narrator, taking you on a jaunt through black history with a smile and a smirk and an inquisitive spring in my step, but the landscape I’m picking through is a war-torn disaster zone”
Boakye knows that he’s nudging the readers with his elbows and making in-jokes. But he also knows that despite the punchlines, it can be a punch in the gut to read. It’s a cool sort of cultural dictionary but it shows how powerful words are and how they can embed themselves into our psyche and the fabric of society. Usually with dangerous effects.
This book is worth all the love given to it by The Guardian and the Financial Times and maybe more in my opinion. It’s definitely one to add to your collection.