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Randy Jackson
figure 1  


dog or dawg. (friend) A companionable name used in greeting for a (usually male) friend.

“Yo, dawg!” is Randy Jackson's signature salutation on the Fox hit American Idol. This alone has become familiar enough to invite satire. The use has become ubiquitous. But what are we really saying if we use this term?

When it comes to friends, dogs are reputed to be Man's best. This is not the nature of this reference however. It is important to remember that such friendships—whether between individuals or between species—are ones in which the dominant partner is invariably human. In contrast, the camaraderie expressed between humans when someone calls a friend “dog” is one that calls directly on a sense of shared—rather than differential—status. At the same time, it implies a shared status that is subordinate to a more dominant one. And, simultaneously, the usage acknowledges that to call someone a dog is, at best, a mild insult. Thus the greeting is a genuine expression of affection, shared status, and a challenge. In everyday use, the greeting frequently implies the kind of ritual insult often found in male banter. However, as in other ritualized forms of insult, such as the dozens, genuine slander is not intended.reference 1 While “dog,” as a greeting, has taken on an overtly positive connotation, it remains one with complex undertones.



1. Geneva Smitherman describes the dozens as “a verbal ritual of talking negatively about someone's coming up with outlandish, highly exaggerated, often sexually loaded humorous 'insult'.” Smitherman, Geneva. 1994. Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner. Boston: Houghton MIfflin. 99.

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A bulldog head with a studded collar and an omega symbol on its cheek spacer
figure 2  

The definition of dog as friend turns up in lots of slang dictionaries, most often with origins in the African American community. In Black Talk, Geneva Smitherman suggests that this term may come from the African American fraternity tradition of referring to pledges (those wishing to join the fraternity) as “dogs.”reference 2 The uninitiated are called dogs, emphasizing their conditional status. Omega Psi Phi is most closely identified with the dog symbol and its members sometimes refer to one another as dogs even after confirmation as brothers and on into adult life. Clearly the term has not only crossed over, but its origins are also increasingly obscured. I believe that there is something to be learned about the term by exploring these roots.

As with the use of other derogatory terms among black youth—such as “niggah”—“dog” referred to and acknowledged the common experience of racism. In such a context the use of dog can be taken as claiming a shared social identity which itself confers status. This deliberate use of non-standard vernacular is what sociolinguist William Labov refers to as “covert prestige.” This is in contrast with overt prestige, in which a speaker seeks to associate him or herself with the status conferred by the use of the general prestigious dialect within society.reference 3

2. Smitherman. 95-96




3. Labov, William quoted in Trudgill, Peter. 1998. Sex and Covert Prestige. In Language and Gender: A Reader, edited by J. Coates. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing. 23.

The initial appropriation of this term by white youth is more complex. Here the term may also emphasize a shared position of being one-down in terms of the powerlessness of youth. At the same time, the appropriation of this term can be seen as an act of borrowing the cachet of the oppressed status of African Americans (another form of covert prestige) without having to actually be subject to racism. White U.S. teens, especially boys, seem prone to the identity of misunderstood outsider. Appropriating this romanticized, presumed “outsider” identity of black youth rationalizes these young men's self-perception as misunderstood, at least for them.

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figure 3

Building on Labov's concepts of covert prestige, Peter Trudgill's work suggests that standard-speaking males in particular use non-standard language to emphasize their masculinity.reference 4 Perhaps this is why while Smitherman, in Black Talk, notes that while usage has broadened to include women, the primary connotation remains male.reference 5

4. Trudgill.

5. Smitherman. 95-6.

Its intriguing that the trajectory of the crossing over of this usage appears not to have been closely charted. In the 1985 edition of Smitherman's analysis of Black English, Talkin and Testifyin, she does not include “dog” in her list of “forms of address between blacks.”reference 6 Even in her 1999 discussion of “borrowed Black verbal expressions,” Margaret Lee does not include “dog”.reference 7 In the more extensive Black Talk (1994), Smitherman discusses this particular usage at length, providing her speculation on origins. She offers no specific route from the historical black college campus to popular culture. A number of prominent athletes and entertainers are Omega Psi Phi “dogs”, including Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, and Bill Cosby.reference 8 Perhaps their use on the court or the stage was influential. More likely, a thorough analysis of popular music and feature films would locate the crossover more precisely.

6. Smitherman, Geneva. 1986. Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. 255.

7. Lee, Margaret G. 1999. Out of the Hood and into the News: Borrowed Black Verbal Expressions in a Mainstream Newspaper. American Speech 74 (4):369-388.

8. Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. Alpha Omega Chapter. 2002. Famous Men of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. Alpha Omega Chapter. Accessed Sep 25 2002 from http:// famous.htm.

About the illustrations: Figure 1 shows Randy Jackson of American Idol. This is an AP photo taken by Kevork Djansezian and it is used by subscription. © 2008

Figure 2, created by the author, is similar to many found on unofficial Omega Psi Phi web sites.

Figure 3 © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation.

see also: “You're The Man now, dog;” Man's Best Friend
dog (woman); bitch
Last updated: January 11, 2009
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