Final Word on ‘pickaninny’

The pickaninny could be a Spaniard or a Portuguese

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If you, like me, always thought ‘pickaninny’ was a typical South African word to describe a young – usually black – boy child, you are wrong. And if you thought ‘Fanagalo’ – that mixture of South African languages spoken mostly on the mines – is a uniquely South African phenomenon, you are wrong again. 

Reading an American collection of jokes and anecdotes, Anything For a Laugh, published way back in 1946, I was highly surprised to come across the term ‘pickaninny’ in a version of a joke that I remembered from my schooldays.

This American version, probably from somewhere in the south of the United States, goes as follows: “A little pickaninny came running to a fat old lady who was rocking herself on the cabin porch, and cried, ‘Mama! You can strike me down if I ain’t just seen a big alligator down in the swamp with little Sambo in his mouth.’ The old lady continued her rocking and called out, ‘Ain’t I been tellin’ you, Ef, that sumfin’ has been ketchin’ them chillum?”

The attempt at a joke in many ways illustrates the correctness of the definition of the term ‘pickaninny’, given in most consulted sources as: “A derogatory term that in English usage refers to black children, or a caricature of them which is widely considered racist.”

But, as is so often the case with this kind of term, much depends on the context in which it is being used.

Some sources record that “at one time, the word was used as a term of affection” and that is certainly the way I got to know it as a child. Many old lullabies use the word ‘pickaninny’ as an affectionate term for babies, but it is now considered derogatory.

The big surprise for me was that it was first recorded, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1653 as a word for a child, but it might also have been used in “early black vernacular to indicate anything small; not necessarily a child”.

And even more surprisingly, the original roots of the term are mostly guessed as coming from the Spanish word pequeño, or Portuguesepequeno, which both mean "little or small". 

It became widely used as a term to describe a small child, and variants are found in English-based Creole languages of the New World and West Africa. For example, in Jamaican English it is pickney and in West African English pickin.

In the southern states of the US, ‘pickaninny’ was long used to refer to the children of African slaves or (later) of black American citizens. The term was, however, popularised in reference to the character of Topsy in the well-known 1852 book and subsequent film, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

It was used in an anti-slavery document, "The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, related by herself" and published in Scotland in 1831.

Another interesting reference is that ‘pickaninny’ is often referred to as a ‘pidgin word form’.

A ‘pidgin’, or ‘pidgin language’, is a simplified language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups who do not have a language in common. It is a simplified means of linguistic communication, constructed impromptu or by convention, between individuals or groups of people.

In this sense, ‘our own’ Fanagalo is a typical pidgin based primarily on Zulu, with some English and Afrikaans input. It is mainly used as a lingua franca on South Africa’s mines by hundreds of thousands of miners as a way of understanding one another. Variants of Funagalo, however, are also found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Namibia, Zambia (called ‘Cikabanga’ and influenced by Bemba) and Zimbabwe (called ‘Chilapalapa’ and influenced by Shona).

According to Wikipedia, Fanagalo being Zulu-based “is a rare example of a pidgin based on an indigenous language rather than on the language of a colonising or trading power”.

The name for South Africa’s Fanagalo primarily developed from the need to give instructions to migrant workers on how to do their job, and is a stringing together of the  Nguni words fana + ga + lo, meaning "like + of + that", to take on the meaning: "do it like this".

The origin of the term ‘pidgin’, which first appeared in print in 1850, is less clear but it is widely speculated to come from the Chinese pronunciation of the English word ‘business’.

Since the term was previously also spelled ‘pigion’, in reference to Chinese Pidgin English, some sources speculate that it comes from ‘pigeon’ – the bird sometimes used for carrying brief written messages.

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