Words at work

– 13 min read

Think before you take: 6 AAVE terms brands should use more responsibly 

Oyinkansola Ogunyinka

Oyinkansola Ogunyinka

6 AAVE terms brands should use more responsibly

Have you said or heard the term “woke” at any point in the last five years? Chances are, the answer is yes. And whether you knew it or not, you were hearing African American Vernacular English (AAVE) — otherwise called Black English, African American English, or Ebonics (“ebony” + “phonetics”).

AAVE is so deeply influential to modern English spoken worldwide that people think it’s just internet culture. But AAVE words aren’t synonymous with internet slang. As Black TikTok creator Erynn Chambers (aka @Rynnstar) put it, “There is no denying that the existence of the internet and our culture has contributed to a certain shared language … However, it’s also true that there are slang terms that are distinctly AAVE like ‘period sis’ or ‘whew chile.’”

Plenty of brands and individuals use AAVE words on a day-to-day basis. But as more companies seek to strike a conversational tone in their voice, they risk overstepping boundaries for when it is and isn’t appropriate to “borrow” terms from historically oppressed groups — like Black Americans.

Citing African American linguists and cultural critics, we’ll explore the origins of 6 AAVE expressions and how brands and marketers can use these terms more intentionally to combat implicit biases and microaggressions. (Hint: hiring and listening to Black marketers is a good first step!)

1. Bad (or “bad b*tch”)

In standard English, “bad” has a negative or serious connotation. But in AAVE, “bad” means the opposite — especially when you’re talking about someone’s appearance. 

“Bad” as an informal way of saying “good” can be traced to West African languages and Caribbean creoles, which also use “bad” for “intense” or “a lot.” For example, mi laik am bad, yu noo is Guyanese Creole for “I like him alot.” A similar form of “bad” is more widely used in English as an adverb indicating “to a great or serious degree.” For instance, “I need this job badly (a lot).”

Reg4real comment badddd girl
Source: Twitter

In AAVE, if you like someone’s shirt, you can let them know they look really “bad” in it. Or, your friend could call themself a “bad bitch” to mean they’re bold, beautiful/sexy, confident, and independent.

People sometimes spell “bad” with two or more “d’s” if something is especially great– “that’s baddd!”

In music and marketing, there may be no badder bitch on the planet than Grammy Award-winning artist-turned fashion entrepreneur,  Lizzo.

Twitter from Lizzo post featuring Lizzo at the Grammy's with her diamond crusted tequila bottle. The caption reads: SHES A BAD BITCH
Source: Twitter

Lizzo built her body-positive shapewear brand, Yitty, on “the principles of self-love, radical inner confidence, and effortless, everyday wear.” Since she literally is the voice of Yitty, every sentence of their social media and product copy drips with Lizzo-inspired confidence and irreverence. And no surprise here: AAVE heavily influences Yitty’s messaging.  

Screenshot of a Yitty Instagram Reel featuring a model of color in a sheer robe and Yitty lingerie. Caption: "Am I the drama?! You deserve a robe that has as much bad b*tch personality as you do...so we ravamped the SATTIN PRETTY Collection with all-new sensual essentials"
Source: Instagram

Yitty’s “bad bitch” messaging resonates with women around the world. For its customers, the phrase is an empowering term that represents being unapologetically unstoppable.

The brand gets thousands of likes with every social media post that features models who look like Yitty’s followers: cis and trans women across every race and size. Plus, Yitty partners with influencers from underrepresented backgrounds. 

Linkedin post from Remi Carlioz featuring a Latinx model in Yitty streetwear. Caption reads "For LatinX Heritage Month. Shot in South Central LA by Thalia Gochez, project conceived by Dyana L for Yitty"
Source: LinkedIn

Yitty understands that people want to be seen and celebrated — especially Black, fat, and transgender women, who the fashion industry has historically rejected and ignored. As long as Yitty stays committed to principles of inclusion in its products, hiring, and marketing strategy, the company can confidently and liberally use AAVE without being appropriative.

Screenshot from the Yitty website about page, featuring models wearing underwear with their arms around each other backs. The models, who face away from the camera, span race and body size. The captions on each image: "Bitch we're responsible" and "You decide how you want to feel"
Source: Yitty

The lesson to brands: if you plan to use the AAVE version of “bad” or the phrase ‘bad bitch” in your content, be “bad.” Give a platform to underrepresented creators and feature models of all body types and backgrounds — including African American culture.

…if you plan to use the AAVE version of “bad” or the phrase ‘bad bitch” in your content, be “bad.”

2. Giving

The AAVE term “giving” is a way of saying that something is top tier or that something exemplifies an emotion or concept.

You could simply say, “it’s giving!” if you think something’s great or you want to show support for something. If you say something’s “giving X, though, you’re explaining that it exudes a certain vibe. (Quick side note: the term “vibe” has roots in African American culture– 1940’s jazz culture, to be precise).

The expression ”giving” came from 1980s drag ball culture (from the predominantly Black queer community) and became quite popular toward the end of 2020.

Tweet from Janelle Monae promoting her upcoming appearance on RuPaul's Drag Race. Monae wears a black and white striped gown. The caption reads: "It's giving HAUS OF MONÁE🖤🌹🤍Watch me guest judge an all-new #DragRace Season 15 TONIGHT at 8/7c on 
 (USA) and 
 (worldwide ex. USA, Canada, Australia) 📸: 
Source: Twitter

“It’s giving” is so popular that Buzzfeed’s Senior Culture Editor Estelle Tang included it on 2022’s end-of-year list of Internet Slang That Needs to Retire.

Internet slang that needs to retire
Source: Buzzfeed

How did the phrase go from wired to tired in the space of 2 years? Well-meaning corporate social media marketing teams jumped on the trend without regard for its origins. They ran the term into the ground. Take Walmart’s TikTok comment on a video by beloved creator Elyse Myers, for example: “it’s giving realness 10/10.”

Walmart comment giving realness
Source: TikTok

When a major corporation with a troubled history uses a distinctly AAVE phrase on social media, it comes off as appropriative and performative. 

While Meyers (who is white), appreciated Walmart, other TikTok users expressed mixed feelings:

Walmart comment human realness
Source: TikTok

Walmart’s comment wasn’t offensive, but it feels out of place and not very self-aware. In the wake of the 2020 uprisings, the largest employer in the world pledged $100 million toward racial equity programs. This pledge came after decades of discrimination and employment violations, including wage theft (the practice of underpaying workers or making employees work ‘off the clock’). Wage theft disproportionately impacts Black Americans, who make up 21.35% of Walmart’s hourly workforce.

When you’re running a social media account for a major brand, it’s tempting to tap out a quick comment that uses the latest lingo. But when a major corporation with a troubled history uses a distinctly AAVE phrase on social media, it comes off as appropriative and performative. 

Avoid this route by staying true to your voice. If you’re unsure about using an AAVE expression, it’s probably not the right fit for your company’s personality. Or it might be a sign that your marketing leadership team could use more Black representation.

3. The habitual ‘be’ and ‘be like’

“Be” refers to someone’s habit or ongoing state. If your dad says, “my sister be sleeping,” he means your aunty is always sleeping or that she sleeps a lot.

E.K. Powell (aka @whatsgoodenglish), a content creator who teaches about AAVE, breaks down “be” in this YouTube video:

“The habitual ‘be’ is probably the most recognizable feature of African American vernacular,” Powell says. “It’s a tense that doesn’t exist in standard English and it creates the idea that something happens frequently.”

Powell goes on to share some contextual examples, like telling someone who interrupts his video: “hey man, you know I be recording normally during these hours, right?” And a child asking: “Mama, can we go to the grocery store by the mall? Because the one by the mall, they be having the ice cream I like!”

Anyone into meme culture knows “be like” — an AAVE phrase to describe how someone acts or appears or how something feels.

moms be like Im only grabbing two things

Social media marketing teams often see meme virality as an invitation for anyone to hop aboard the AAVE train — but that would be a mistake.

To promote the launch of the new #PLTbyMollyMae collection, UK-based apparel brand Pretty Little Thing posted a compilation video of Billy Marsal, its first Black hijabi model, with the caption ‘Being @billy_marsal be like…🤩 #PLTbyMollyMae’ on TikTok.

Tiktok pretty little thing
Source: TikTok

The brand didn’t receive backlash for using “be like” in this instance, but it was a risky move from a company with a rocky relationship with Black and other marginalized communities.

You may have good intentions, but your impact is what people will see, so make sure it’s positive. 

Customers have criticized Pretty Little Thing in the past for a lack of representation in its models. The company came under scrutiny in 2020 for featuring a white Swedish model with a history of “blackfishing” (earning clout by darkening skin and styling hair to look Black or mixed race).

Instagram post from @eemmahallberg, a white Swedish model, whose skin is darkened with bronzer, who is wearing her hair, dyed black, in a Black women's braided style, and who has lined her lips to look plumper than her natural lipshape. Caption: "Full fit from PLT"
Source: Instagram

The fast-fashion brand also has a reputation for stealing and watering down designs from Black and Brown fashion designers and for using forced labor in its supply chains.

Source: Twitter

Hiring Billy Marsal was a good step toward representation, but using AAVE to introduce their brand’s first Black hijabi model risks coming across as tokenism.

In its mission statement (that also borrows from AAVE), PLT claims to represent  “​​a movement towards body positivity, equality and all round feeling yo’self regardless of body type, race or gender.”  While PLT features Black models on its site today, past criticism still carries weight. There’s still work to do, like hiring and paying Black creators for their designs, before the brand can live up to its aspirations.

For brands who use AAVE or trends inspired by the Black community, the message is clear: your audience is watching and will call you out if you overstep by stealing without crediting. You may have good intentions, but your impact is what people will see, so make sure it’s positive. 

4. Period or periodt

People have been using the term “full stop” to indicate that the speaker has the final word on a matter for centuries. Although the exact origins are unknown, saying “period” aloud as a substitute for “full stop” likely began in early 20th century Black American culture and it was quickly absorbed into everyday slang.

As Black Twitter and Black TikTok influenced mainstream culture, we’ve seen the proliferation of a more distinctly Black version; “periodt.” In AAVE, “periodt” emphasizes an idea at the end of a conversation– times TEN. If you love your mom’s desserts, you might say, “Mom’s chocolate cake is the best. Periodt.” And if she responds to you with an excited “Periodt!”, she’s simply agreeing with you in the same way she could have said, “you can say that again!”

Black folks also use this phrase when they feel like something is non-negotiable. A parent who doesn’t like the girl their son is dating might say, “There’s no way you’re going out with that girl again, periodt!”

“Periodt” originates from Black gay slang, and is commonly used in the full expression, “and that’s on periodt.” While the instances of “periodt” on the internet from the early 2000s might have been mistakes (we may never know for sure), its use definitely became widespread in the 2010s — especially on Twitter.

In AAVE, “periodt” emphasizes an idea or the end of a conversation– times TEN.

Marketers should understand the nuances around “period” and “periodt” to avoid coming across as appropriative or off-key. Here are some examples:

Bally Sports Southwest made a tweet claiming that Luca Doncic is currently the best player in the NBA. The company ended the statement with a simple ‘period’ for emphasis.

Luka Doncic best player in NBA right now
Source: Twitter

Let’s say that Bally Sports ended its tweet with “periodt.” The tweet wouldn’t have been the most offensive post in the world, but it would have been cultural appropriation. “Periodt” is a distinctly African American term, and Bally Sports doesn’t have deep roots in this culture. Not to mention, the tweet highlights a white basketball player.

Meanwhile, women’s basketball team, the Dallas Wings, tweeted a picture of player Isabelle Harrison with a single word: “Periodt.” The tweet got over 23.5K likes and was retweeted over two thousand times. How could the Dallas Wings social media team get away with using the AAVE term when Bally’s would have flopped?

Source: Twitter

First, the image in the tweet features a Black woman basketball player walking confidently into the arena, looking flawless. It celebrates the beauty of her Blackness and her feminine power in one, carefully-chosen word. Second, while the WNBA as an organization isn’t immune to marketing missteps when it comes to representing the Black community properly, the Dallas Wings has a significant fan base of Black women. They are speaking the language of their customer.

All to say, be mindful when using “periodt” as a marketer. If your brand isn’t a product of or doesn’t represent the Black community in a significant way — and you’re worried you might be appropriating African American culture — you can always swap out the phrase for “period,” as Bally Sports did. Full stop.

5. Tea

We’re not talking about a hot English breakfast drink. We’re talking about dishing gossip.

People almost always use the AAVE term “tea” in the phrase, “spill the tea!” It’s an invitation for someone to tell you the latest juicy news.

“Tea” originated from Black drag culture as far back as 1994. The phrase is sometimes spelled as just “T.”

In 2019, Alexa tweeted at the official Star Trek Twitter account to say it was waiting for the makers of Picard to “spill more tea” on the series.

Alexa spill more tea
Source: Twitter

Using “tea” here seems innocent enough. But it’s worth noting that dozens of Black Amazon employees have reported facing discrimination and racial biases on the job. Many find that major changes in DEI only happen at Amazon when the brand is under heavy press scrutiny.

If the online marketplace wants likes and retweets with a fun mention of “tea,” it should also take steps to respect African American culture — primarily by making its workplace safe for people of color. Before using AAVE words, Amazon needs to focus on tackling discrimination and hiring more Black people as promised.

6. As f*** or AF

This AAVE term is firmly in mainstream culture. People use “af” to emphasize or exaggerate a point — like being “angry af,” “savage af,” “lit af,” or “tired af.” People also use “me af” or “relatable af” to show that they can relate to something.

Armoni comment

As early as the 1970s, people were using “af.” In 1988, N.W.A. famously used the lyrics “sneaky as f***” in its album Straight Outta Compton.

Late last year, ASOS tweeted “relatable AF” in reaction to a meme about spending too much on clothes.

ASOS relatable AF
Source: Twitter

ASOS’ use of AAVE here seems totally appropriate — especially since “af” has become mainstream. But even for widely used AAVE words, marketers should feel confident that their brand is honoring African American culture before using the language.

In ASOS’ case, the fashion brand seems to be intentional in its allyship. The company has an entire website section dedicated to diversity under its 2030 strategy for Fashion With Integrity. Back in 2017, when ASOS updated its app to show the same clothing item on several models of different sizes and skin tones by default, the brand increased its revenue and annual profits by 33% and 145%, respectively.

Don’t misuse culture in an attempt to boost sales — be mindful of AAVE words and Black perspectives

There’s a difference between appreciation and appropriation. When your company profits from using language, music, and other cultural expressions that were historically rejected by white society because of their relationship to Blackness, it risks appropriating and exploiting Black culture.

For most brands today, full appreciation and proper representation of Black culture is a long-term game. It’s played from the inside out. Hire more Black leaders and marketers. Follow more Black creators. Listen to Black perspectives. And amplify Black voices– without speaking for them or over them.