"Origin Unknown" and Other Peculiar Etymologies
By Fern L. Johnson
Howard Journal of Communication, Volume 13, Number 3/July 01, 2002, pp. 207 - 222.
Scholars over several decades have documented African retentions present today in the United States. Among these are lexical items in mainstream or regional U.S. English whose origins have been traced to African languages. Twenty-six of these words, drawn from the research of Winifred Vass, were selected as test words to discover the extent to which leading U.S. dictionaries include African language origins in the etymologies for these words: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1981 and 2000; Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, 1983; and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 1998. Even the recent dictionaries revealed little about African language influences for the test words, with only three words uniformly attributed to African languages. The exclusion of even speculative etymological notes in other definitions is conspicuous, as is the attribution of "origin unknown" for eight of the test words.
Patterns like the ones found in this investigation reflect on the institutions and institutional practices that continue to carry racist codes, whether wittingly or not.