updated 02/07/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 02/07/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST
A distinguished novelist and poet, Major, 57, has been keeping tabs on black slang for 25 years. He fills notepads and index cards with expressions—some more than 250 years old—gleaned from scholarly works and blues, rap videos and TV, from street youths and the middle class, from urban centers and the rural South.
Juba to Jive (Penguin), a comprehensive 548-page work explaining the history and usage of more than 5,000 words and phrases, has already won praise from New York Times language maven William Sa-fire. "On the subtle shadings of black slang," he writes, "lexicographers don't mess with Major." But Major does expect to take some heat both from critics who say he is legitimizing a language that isolates blacks from the cultural mainstream and from fellow African-Americans who believe, he says, that "this is a secret language that ought to stay in the privacy of our homes."
African-American slang dates back to the early 1600s, when arriving slaves picked up the pidgin English that European traders and English-speaking landowners used to communicate. Slaves also borrowed from their native tongues as they developed their new oral language; in fact, what linguists perceive as infantile grammar in black slang ("she be going") can be traced back to the sentence structure of the Bantu languages, says Major. Black dialect then filtered into mainstream English, especially in the South. Jubilee, for example, comes from the Bantu word juba, a popular plantation dance dating back to the 18th century. Funky comes from Lu-funki, a Kongo word for bad body odor.
Major observes that each era has its own slang style. The 1940s was a time of humorous verbosity, when a bartender became a "fizzical eulturist," and "I'm brooming to the slammer that fronts the drape crib" meant you were walking lo the clothes closet. That tradition in turn has influenced rap. "A lot of kids don't realize they're corning from a long tradition in the way they misuse a big word or parody formal language," says Major. Rap has also absorbed the pattern of giving negative words positive meaning. Bad, of course, means good; mack, a word used in the '30s and '40s to mean a violent pimp, has been softened so that it now describes playful flirtation.
Born in Atlanta, Major was 7 when his father, a restaurant manager, and his mother, a store clerk, divorced. Clarence moved with her to Chicago, where he was at first ostracized by-other kids for his southern slang.
He mastered the local street talk as well as standard English and went on to win a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied painting. Major also wrote short stories and became a jazz devotee. Living across the street from the Ritz Hotel, he rubbed elbows with stars like Lionel Hampton and Johnny Otis, who boarded in the downstairs apartment.
After a three-year stint in the Air Force as a clerk, Major returned to Chicago and worked odd jobs while writing fiction. He married and divorced twice—fathering six children—before moving to New York and earning a bachelor's degree at the state university in Albany. In 1978, Major got his Ph.D. in English, then lectured at several universities and lived in France as a Fulbright scholar before settling at UC Davis in 1989. "I had no intention of becoming an academic, but I was good at it and so I stayed with it," he says. Major is also the acclaimed author of seven novels (1986's My Ampliations, about an eccentric ex-con, won the Western States Book Award) and nine volumes of poetry.
Today Major and his third wife, Pamela, 46, a nonfiction writing teacher at UC Davis, live in an airy, four-bedroom house near campus, where he is at work on a new novel about a 1940s blues performer. Pam says Major always "has his antennae up" for new slang words and that he isn't chilling out (relaxing) even though he's finished Juba to Jive. "I recently heard one of my students say, 'I'm not gonna be praying for some Sky Daddy to change my luck,' " says Major. "Sky Daddy—I guess it means God. There are new terms popping up every day, and I've gotta check them out."
MICHAEL SMALL in Davis