Ebonics 101: Big L & E. B. White Break Bread

“Euphemisms are misunderstood as mistakes/ But it’s a by-product of the ghetto music we make/” —Canibus, “Poet Laureate II,” Rip the Jacker, 2003. Of the many reasons Hip-Hop music dogged for, one of the most unremarkable is that it teaches bad English—broken English—Ebonics. Critics argue that it celebrates anti-intellectualism, with an emphasis on rhyme rather […]


are misunderstood as mistakes/


it’s a by-product of the ghetto music we make/”


“Poet Laureate II,” Rip the Jacker,


Of the many reasons Hip-Hop music dogged

for, one of the most unremarkable is that it teaches bad English—broken

English—Ebonics. Critics argue that it celebrates anti-intellectualism, with an

emphasis on rhyme rather than reason. Hip-Hop music is largely a compilation of

half-thoughts, displaying no linguistic dexterity whatsoever, they say. Of

course, these mush-mouths have

never heard of The GZA or Lauryn Hill or Canibus; but that belabors the point.   

In his seminal 1979 essay, “If Black

English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” James Baldwin stood

up to those making such claims far back as the 1960s and 1970s. He wrote:

If this passion, this skill, this (to quote Toni

Morrison) “sheer intelligence,” this incredible music, the mighty

achievement of having brought a people utterly unknown to, or despised by

“history”–to have brought this people to their present, troubled,

troubling, and unassailable and unanswerable place–if this absolutely

unprecedented journey does not indicate that black English is a language, I am

curious to know what definition of language is to be trusted.

What critics who are yet to acquaint themselves

with the reality of the ghetto miss out, is that out of nothing has come

richness of language. Out of very little, has been developed a way to

communicate directly with one’s peoples, one’s peers and, even, one’s enemies.

The French understand this doing—the making of lemonade with lemons—as bricolage.  

For instance, one shouldn’t be surprised,

in certain parts of New York, to hear exchanges like “What up, son [or sun]?”

Detroiters are less casual: “What up, doe?” Through Hip-Hop, we also know that

in Atlanta it isn’t meant offensively to be asked, “What up, shawty?” The

Twistas, Do or Dies and Lupe Fiascos have made clear why Chicagoans don’t

assume everyone is named Joe when they ask, “What up, Joe?” It was also because

of Hip-Hop that an international audience was introduced to the theology of the

Five Percenters, which many MCs have since adopted. So, it came as no surprise

when the phrases “Peace, god” or “What up, god?” was watered on wax. 

That no other group has more contributed

to Hip-Hop dialect than the Wu-Tang Clan needs no mention. The 9-member Shaolin

army are not only responsible for sustaining New York Hip-Hop—at a time many

had begun expressing great skepticism about it—they also deserve due credit for

creating the explosion of social consciousness that made the early and mid-‘90s

an enjoyable period for Hip-Hop listeners. But their greatest contribution

might be the strange slangs and

terminologies the Hip-Hop community was exposed to, following Enter the Wu-Tang

(36 Chambers). Before Wu-Tang, very few believed that much good could come out

of Staten Island (let’s be honest); but after 1993, the verdict wasn’t

mistakable anymore. By fusing Martial artistry with ancient mysticism and

street speech, they created a brand-new form of dialogue that still unnerves

listeners today.

Hip-Hop might not, as of yet, be all we

want it to be, but it established rich rhetorical transactions that youth

around the world have found great treasure in.  

No one knew this more than slain Harlem

rapper Big L (R.I.P.). On his second album, The

Big Picture (posthumous release), the lost lyricist addressed the issue with

a song titled, “Ebonics.” A born linguist, Big L wanted the world to “pay

attention and listen real closely how I break this slang sh** down.”

But Big L wasn’t the only one proud

enough of the language spoken around, and by, him to share it with an international

audience. Renowned writer E. B. White was no different. Author of the famous

children novel series, “Charlotte’s Web,” White wrote an essay, published

October 1940 in Harper’s Magazine (reprinted

later in his classic text “One Man’s Meat”),

titled, “Maine Speech,” in which he surveyed the “tongue spoken” in Maine. “I

find that, whether I will or no, my speech is gradually changing, to conform to

the language of the country,” he wrote.    

In his essay, White listed diverse

examples of terms which Maine’s people had developed into a brand they could

call their own.

Big L accomplished the same aim in his


What follows are excerpts from both “Ebonics”

and “Maine Speech”:

“My weed smoke is my lye/ A key of coke is a pie/

When I’m lifted, I’m high/ With new clothes on, I’m fly/.”

—Big L

“For the word ‘all’ you use the phrase ‘the whole

of.’ You ask, ‘Is that the whole of it?’ And whole is pronounced hull. Is that

the hull of it?”

—E. B. White

“A radio is a box, a razor blade is a ox/ Fat diamonds

is rocks and jakes is cop/ And if you got rubbed, you got stuck/ You got shot,

you got bucked/.”

—Big L

“For lift, the word is heft. You heft a thing to see

how much it weighs. When you are holding a wedge for somebody to tap with a

hammer, you say: ‘Tunk it a little’.”

—E. B. White

“Your bankroll is your poke, a choke hold is a yoke/

A kite is a note, a con is a okey doke/ And if you got punched, that mean you

got snuffed/ To clean is to buff, a bull scare is a strong bluff/.”

—Big L

“Baster (pronounced bayster) is a popular word with

boys. All the kids use it. He’s an old baster, they say, when they pull an eel

out of an eel trap. It probably derives from bastard, but it sounds quite

proper and innocent when you hear it, and rather descriptive. I regard lots of

things now (and some people) as old basters.”

—E. B. White

A burglary is a jook, a woof’s a crook/ Mobb Deep

already explained the meaning of shook/ If you caught a felony, you caught a F/

If you got killed, you got left/.”

—Big L

“When you’re prying something with a pole and put a

rock under the pole as a fulcrum, the rock is called a bait. Few people use the

word ‘difference.’ When they want to say it makes no difference, they say it

doesn’t make any odds.”

 —E. B. White

“Condoms is hats, critters is cracks/ The food you

eat is your grub/ A victim’s a mark/ A sweat box is a small club, your tick is

your heart/.”

—Big L

“Hunting or shooting is called gunning. Tamarack is

always hackmatack. Tackle is pronounced taykle. You rig a block and taykle.”

—E. B. White

“The iron horse is the train and champaign is bubbly/

A deuce is a honey that’s ugly/ If your girl is fine, she’s a dime/ A suit is a

fine, jewelry is shine/.”

—Big L

“Wood that hasn’t properly seasoned is dozy. The

lunch hour is one’s nooning. A small cove full of mud and eelgrass is a gunkhole.

… If you get through the winter without dying or starving you ‘wintered well’.”

—E. B. White

“If you in love, that mean you blind/ Genuine is

real, a face card is a hundred dollar bill/ A very hard, long stare is a grill/

If you sneakin’ to go see a girl, that mean you creepin’/.”

—Big L

“Persons who are not native to this locality are

‘from away.’ We are from away ourselves, and always shall be, even if we live

here the rest of our lives.  You’ve got to

be born here—otherwise you’re from away.”

—E. B. White

“Jealous is jelly, your food box is your belly/ To guerrilla mean to use physical force/ You took a L,

you took a loss/ To show off mean floss/.”

—Big L

“People get born, but lambs and calves get dropped.

… When a sow has little ones, she ‘pigs’.”

—E. B. White

White concluded: “Country talk is alive

and accurate, and contains more pictures and images than city talk. It usually

has an unmistakable sincerity which gives it distinction. I think there is less

talking merely for the sound which it makes..” And to that, Big L added: “I know

you like the way I’m freakin’ it/ I talk with slang and I’ma never stop speakin’


Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic and a Columnist for BlackCommentator.com. He can be reached at Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.