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Scholarly reflections on ‘bae’

What do you call your loved one? Babe and baby have been used for centuries to discuss small children, and eventually a significant other. With the inclusion of bae on Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year shortlist, we asked a number of scholars for their thoughts on this new word and emerging phenomenon.

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“Childish Gambino, the rap persona of entertainment industry generalist Donald Glover, rapped ‘Hanalei Bay with my bae, what can I say?’ on a song he posted on his Soundcloud in late August. Titled ‘Candler Road’ after the thoroughfare in his native Atlanta, he borrows the enunciative and ominous sound that fellow Atlantan Future has employed on his recent roster of hits, and then the melodic and contemplative approach child actor-turned-rapper Drake has perfected. Bae is integral to the line’s internal rhyme and to the insouciance Gambino—who famously left the NBC sitcom Community, pausing his acting, television writing, and stand up comedy career for the love of hip hop and the attendant cool it inspires. Bae, quite simply a devolution of babe (baby), truncates the consonance of the sound, and arguably the sentiment. In hashtag form it imprints social media posts of a relationship status with cool. This newest addition to the shifting slanguage of belonging is an accessory to ‘I won’ (in rapper Future and Kanye West’s parlance from a their hit song of the same name last spring). ‘I just want to take you out and show you off’ is precisely how Future warbled it on the chorus, boastful, like invoking an image of yourself lounging on the island Kauaʻi with ‘bae’ and then declaring yourself speechless.”
Jalylah Burrell, music critic, deejay, educator, and PhD Candidate, Yale University, Departments of American and African American Studies

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“When Jeremy Meeks AKA ‘Prison Bae’ entered my Twitter timeline I did not expect the whirlwind of debate about the significance of the term bae. It was not my first time hearing it; I grew up in the rural South and the slow drag of ‘baaae’ in daily conversations and southern rap did not warrant any further questioning about its significance or meaning. It was a term of endearment and at times all encompassing — anyone could be bae. However, Meeks’ mug shot turned meme demanded a different type of engagement, shifting bae as a term of endearment to something more pleasurable, a recognition of black women’s (physical) desires in the 21st century. Prison Bae memes and the hilarious – if at times nauseating – ‘Cooking for Bae’ Instagram account make me think about how race and women’s desires are signified upon in social media. Instead of black women being restricted to objects of desire for men, bae carves out room for black women to enter the conversation on their own terms. Using bae as a social media meme not only archives black women’s desires but complicates how black women’s pleasures and experiences fit into a constantly shifting social-culturescape that is heavily vested in technology and popular culture. Responses to black women’s use of bae memes suggests an unfamiliarity and unwillingness to engage how bae complicates the ownership and expression of women’s desirability and racial identities in a digital era.”
Regina N. Bradley, researcher of contemporary African American Popular Culture and founder/host of OutKasted Conversations

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Bae couldn’t be Word of the Year in 2014 because Urban Dictionary has an entry about it from 2008! Slang that old may already be on the way out. Even as a runner-up, though, I’m sure it will ignite a firestorm of slacktivism to reinstate that second /b/.”
Michael Adams, Indiana University at Bloomington, author of Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon, Slang: The People’s Poetry, editor of From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages

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Bae doesn’t save you much effort, if the word you have in mind is babe. But if you like rhymes, ‘Hey, Bae’ makes for a nifty lexical duo.”
Naomi S. Baron, Professor of Linguistics and Executive Director of the Center for Teaching, Research & Learning at American University in Washington, DC; author of Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World and the forthcoming Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World

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Headline image credit: Beautiful African American couple wearing white shirts laying in grass. © phakimata via iStock.

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