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On the Sci-Fi/Fantasy site, a user asked what "What's the meaning of '411 on the late-night drop box'?," a line from Captain Marvel, which was set in 1995.

Another user answered that it meant "how to use the video return slot" (correctly, IMO), but made an off-hand comment that "the 411" was considered Black slang. They certainly seem to be correct that it originated from Black culture, namely Aretha Franklin's 1982 song Jump to It.

However, many commenters remarked they didn't think it was specifically associated with Black American English, a sentiment I would have shared. Even Urban Dictionary, a site which ... doesn't really shy away from slapping racial labels on things doesn't mention anything about being associated with Black Americans.

Neither does our question/answer on it, in fact the top/accepted answer links it to Valley Girl subcultures, which, while very '90s, is definitely not Black.

So, the question is, would "the 411" have been marked as Black slang in the '90s? Or even in '82?

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    In what context? In what place? By whom? An upper-class New Yorker or white, country-dwelling Minnesotan or black person living in LA or Alabama might have very different ideas about what constitutes black slang. – Stuart F Dec 12 '19 at 10:04
  • @Stuart True, and answer could touch on those – Azor Ahai -him- Dec 12 '19 at 16:35
  • books.google.com/… – Hot Licks Dec 12 '19 at 21:01
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    @hot Can you provide some context for the links you just posted? – Azor Ahai -him- Dec 12 '19 at 21:13
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    @AzorAhai - all books cited were published from 2009 to 2013...nothing to do with 80s/90s usage. – user 66974 Dec 12 '19 at 21:23
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The slang expression "411" was familiar enough as black U.S. slang to be included in Geneva Smitherman, Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner (1994):

FOE-ONE-ONE (4-1-1)

The facts, the information on something, the DEAL. From the telephone number 4 1 1, used to get local directory assistance from the telephone company (a number now in the process of transition). A 1960s term resurfacing in HIP HOP, as in Mary J. Blige's 1992 album and title song What's the 4 1 1? First used in African American music by Aretha Franklin: "No, Kitty, you know when we talk, we have a lot of fun, don't we, girl? Dishing out the dirt on everybody and and giving each other the 4 1 1 on who drop kicked who this week" (from "Jump to It," the title JAM on her 1982 album, written and produced by Luther Vandross).

Smitherman asserts that "the 411" was "a term" (implicitly, a black slang term) in the 1960s but then fell into general disuse—notwithstanding a mention of it in an Aretha Franklin/Luther Vandross song—perhaps until repopularized by Mary J. Blige in 1992. On that record, the argument for its being strongly associated with black slang in the early 1990s seems quite strong; but Smitherman doesn't point to any record of the term's use as slang before Franklin in 1982, and I was unable to find any print record of it from the 1960s in searches of newspaper databases or Google Books. Another fairly reliable reference work for black slang, Clarence Major, Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang (1994) has no entry for "411" or "four-one-one."

According to a Wikipedia article on 4-1-1, wide-scale use of the 411 directory assistance number in the U.S. and Canada began in 1962, so the window for converting it into a slang term during the 1960s was only about eight years wide.

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According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang the expression four-eleven is from Black slang:

four-eleven n. also 411, four-one-one, (the US phone number for information)

(US black/campus) information.

  • [1982 Borowitz & Hirsch Square Pegs Episode 10, 13 Dec. [TV script] Jennifer Dinuccio: Going to the Grease [a diner] is about as cool as someone with a tin mouth, ok? LaDonna Fredericks: Girl, if you know someplace cooler, I want to know. I am dialing 411].

give the four-eleven/411 (v.):

(US black) to give out information, to instruct; also as excl.

  • 1997 in Ryerson Review of Journalism 88: Phat story, girlfriend. And after that, more fly stuff when we bring the new ZBC go-go dancers out to give the 411 on our new sister station, ZBC Danceworld.
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    The phrase also appears in Maciej Widawski's African American Slang – Richard Dec 12 '19 at 18:22
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    This answer adds context to the origins, but doesn't answer when it would have been marked as Black. – Azor Ahai -him- Dec 12 '19 at 18:53
  • @AzorAhai - it was marked as Black from the start, so in the period you are referring to. Now it is probably perceived more as a US expression. – user 66974 Dec 12 '19 at 18:55

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