You hear it in movies like "The Help" all the time, but I'm trying to look for words like "missuh" and not finding any. Anyone familiar with the early 20th century African American lingo?

I'm only using "The Help" as an example where blacks addressed whites in a "subservient" fashion. I was looking for anything post-emancipation and before the civil rights era. I was hoping to find a list of such words and in what manner they were used.

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    It's not "missuh" (mister, sir) - it's "massa" (master, boss). – FumbleFingers Jan 25 '12 at 5:06
  • @FumbleFingers It is more like mansa, in which the n faded with time and turned into unnasalized masa. – Kris Jan 25 '12 at 5:22
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    I would not have expected massa to survive for long after emancipation in the 19th century. The question is about a 20th century term. – MetaEd Jan 25 '12 at 5:26
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    FF offered a correction to the OP's word "missuh", saying the word is actually "massa". I the correction is wrong and that the word OP is asking about is "missuh" as stated. Note the movie "The Help" is set in the 1960's, which is not the 1860's when "massa" would still have been prevalent, and not even the early 20th c. that OP asked about. Furthermore, "The Help" is not reliable as a source for how southern blacks addressed white people even in the 1960's, according to this source. – MetaEd Jan 25 '12 at 16:59
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    @Abdullah: are you looking for a clearer spelling of what was used in the movie 'The Help', or for what other words might have been used? Also, are you looking for politer forms of address or epithets (I presume the former)? – Mitch Jan 26 '12 at 14:47

The few addresses that I heard in the movie 'The Help' were not particular to 'the help'.

  • 'miss' (for an unmarried female)
  • 'ma'am' (for a married female)
  • 'sir' (for an adult male).

For young males, I'm not sure (I have a hard time believing an adult black would feel compelled to say sir to a 10-year old boy, at least in the 60's), but there were no young males in the movie to address.

During that time period, if these were not used it would be a sign of disrespect.

These would be used between any race (whites to whites, whites to blacks) but from whites to blacks there might be an age shift (because of racial disrespect (e.g. for a white person the threshold to start calling a black person 'sir' might be much older).

Though these forms are pretty much the same in AAVE and in Southern American English (these two share many features separate from GenAmE), in speech, they might be elided differently and this is what may be heard in the movie. "No'm", "Yes'm" might be what you heard.

If you include the name of the person you are addressing, you'd say (respectively)

  • Miss Ellen (Miss + first name) if familiar or Miss + last name if not familiar)
  • Missus Jones
  • Mister Jones

For whites in the South it is not uncommon to still hear miss/ma'am/sir, mostly in commercial or business situations; that is, it is slowly dying off, whereas in the rest of the country is has been long gone. For blacks and interracially, I'm not sure.

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  • The age shift thing is interesting, it seems though that the actual words were not different then. – Abdullah Jibaly Jan 26 '12 at 19:16
  • Re: the age thing, I've presented an overly...um...white-washed version of things. I've heard 'boy' used by whites for blacks (when the black person was obviously not a boy), and by my and other standards, this was considered very disrespectful. If only blacks from the south would say here if people still (or ever) addressed blacks as 'sir' or 'ma'am' (and if there's a distinction of race). – Mitch Jan 26 '12 at 21:41

There is a wealth of information on African American Vernacular English (AAVE) online.

Joseph E. Holloway in The Impact of African Languages on American English says, 'Buckra, comes from mbakara, the Efik/Ibibio word for "white man," and buckaroo, also coming from mbakara. These words described a class of whites who worked as "broncobusters."'. He also tells us 'Honkie, a term popular during the 1960s, was first used by blacks to describe those white men who drove into African-American communities and honked automobile horns for their black dates.'. There is on this page, a selected (?partial) glossary of words used by Americans that are derived from African terms or usage.

According to Holloway, enslaved Africans used the term Masa ('chief' or 'leader') for master.

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    I thought buckaroo was from Spanish vaquero? – Alex Jan 25 '12 at 5:07
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    @Alex Per Holloway, The word bronco (probably of Efik/Ibibio and Spanish origins) was used by the Spanish and by enslaved Africans. So, you are right, after all. – Kris Jan 25 '12 at 5:17
  • Etymonline lists honkey as derogatory slang word for "white person," by 1967, black slang, of unknown origin, perhaps from late 19c. hunky "East-Central European immigrant," a colloquial shortening of Hungarian. – Robusto Jan 25 '12 at 17:24

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