The Grammarphobia Blog

Biggity: too big for one’s britches

Q: An example in your piece about “ungrateful” and “uppity” uses “bigity,” as in “too big for one’s britches.” Did it originate among African Americans? I’ve heard it only from black folks in in the South.

A: The word “biggity” may indeed have originated in the 19th century among African Americans in the South, though a somewhat similar dialectal term, “bigotty,” showed up a bit earlier in England.

The Dictionary of American Regional English defines “biggity” (also spelled “bigity,” “biggaty,'” “biggedy,” etc.) as “exhibiting a sense of superiority or self-importance; arrogant, insolent, uppity.”

The earliest DARE example for “biggity” is from Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings (1881), by Joel Chandler Harris: “Dey er mighty biggity, dem house niggers is, but I notices dat dey don’t let nuthin’ pass.”

Many African Americans have criticized the portrayal of Uncle Remus, the narrator, as demeaning, patronizing, or racist. But others have said the characterization, with its Gullah dialect, is accurate.

In the foreword of a 1987 retelling of the Brer Rabbit stories, for example, the black folklorist Julius Lester writes:

“There are no inaccuracies in Harris’s characterization of Uncle Remus. Even the most cursory reading of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writer’s Project of the 1930s reveals that there were many slaves who fit the Uncle Remus mold.”

DARE has citations for “biggity” used by whites as well as blacks, in the American South and Midwest, from the late 19th to the early 21st century.

The states include Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and a Northeast outlier, New Jersey.

The latest example is a 2015 Louisiana entry from the dictionary’s Internet files: “I thought that everyone in a highschool band would be biggity and cocky towards freshman. It wasn’t the case though.”

DARE notes that the English Dialect Dictionary has an entry for “bigotty,” meaning “bumptious, overbearing, self-willed,” and suggests that both “biggity” and “bigotty” may have been derived from the noun “bigot.”

In support of this notion, DARE editors point readers to a 1902 citation from Dialect Notes, a journal of the American Dialect Society: “Bigoted or bigoty … Conceited; proud; haughty.”

The earliest citation for “bigotty” in the English Dialect Dictionary is from an 1873 issue of the journal Notes and Queries: “Maayn beg·utee luyk, id-n ur [very bumptious (like), is he not?].” The EDD adds: “Nothing suggestive of religious intolerance is implied.”

The idea that “biggity” originated among African Americans is supported by an example we’ve found in “Negro English,” an article by the American linguist James A. Harrison in the January 1884 issue of Anglia, a German quarterly devoted to English linguistics.

The article, written in English, has a glossary entitled “Specimen Negroisms” that includes this example: “To talk biggity = to talk big, to order.”

Harrison’s work “is believed to be the first linguistic study of ‘Negro English,’ ” according to the Oxford Handbook of African American Language. However, modern scholars have challenged some of Harrison’s ideas, such as his view that “Negro English” would eventually fade away.

In Figures in Black (1987), for example, Henry Louis Gates Jr. notes Harrison’s prediction that African American Vernacular English (the term linguists now use), would become, as Gates says, “a mere relic of the slave past.”

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