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I am currently reading through Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes's 1931 play, The Mule-Bone, and I am rather puzzled by the term "B-I-T-sweetie," which shows up in this exchange in Act I:

Walter: (Winking.) Whut’s dat you got, Teet⁠ ⁠… letter from Dave?

Teet: (Flouncing.) Naw indeed! It’s a letter from my B-I-T-sweetie! (Rolls her eyes and hips.)

Walter: (Winking.) Well, ain’t Dave yo’ B-I-T-sweetie? I thought y’all was ’bout to git married. Everywhere I looked dis summer ’twas you and Dave, Bootsie and Jim. I thought all of y’all would’ve done jumped over de broomstick by now.

Teet: (Flourishing letter.) Don’t tell it to me⁠ ⁠… tell it to the ever-loving Mr. Albert Johnson way over in Apopka.

Teet is a female character, described in the dramatis personae as "Village vamp who is jealous of Daisy." Walter is a male character, described as "Another village wag." I believe the letter is supposed to be from "Mr. Albert Johnson," who does not appear on stage in the play.

For even more context, you can read the play at the Library of Congress.

From context clues, I get the sense that it's a term of endearment, but I am really not sure how to parse it. Is "B-I-T" some sort of initialism or acronym, or is this supposed to represent the characters drawing out or spelling out the word "bit"? (Even if "B-I-T" is just the word "bit," I still have no idea what a "bit-sweetie" or "bit sweetie" is. I have never encountered that term before.)

It might be helpful to add that the play is set in Eatonville, Florida (the same Black community that part of Their Eyes Were Watching God was set in), so I suspect that it's a dialect term from that particular time and place.

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    The first thing that jumped into my mind was that B-I-T is the beginning of spelling out “bitch”. Whether this is a reasonable meaning in context I have no idea.
    – Peter
    Jul 12, 2023 at 11:53
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    FWIW, @9:15 and ff. in this video, the characters spell it out Bee, Aye, Tee. youtu.be/LUHw5R8IyHA
    – TimR
    Jul 12, 2023 at 15:19
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    The most detailed dictionary of twentieth-century African American slang that I'm aware of is Clarence Major, Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang (1994). It has no entry for "B-I-T-sweetie" or for "B.I.T."—nor does it have any phrase entries in the "B" section that start with the initials "B"-"I"-"T". There is an entry for "B.O.T." (short for "balance of [imprisonment] time"), but Major states that this slang abbreviation did not come into use until the 1950s. I haven't been able to find any information anywhere on the term "B-I-T-sweetie" that appears in The Mule-Bone.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jul 13, 2023 at 6:15
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    I’m eyeing Bit-O-Honey: “an American candy product; it first appeared in 1928” for clues. Jul 19, 2023 at 3:17
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    It's almost certainly a diversion of "B-I-T-C-H", a way of saying bitch in (relatively) polite society. It's a joke similar to what TV Tropes calls Curse Cut Short, first cousin of subverted rhymes like "Miss Suzie had a steamboat,/the steamboat had a bell,/Miss Suzie went to heaven,/the steamboat went to/Hello operator..." But until I can find examples of this, it must remain a comment.
    – Stuart F
    Aug 28, 2023 at 14:20

1 Answer 1

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From the context, what seems the the most likely is a specific but possibly not established acronym - yielding "butterflies in tummy" or "boyfriend in training", or "before interest and taxes", to indicate they're a prospect for personal interest and taxation. "Broomstick important target/interest trigger". "Bachelor in touch". "Best in town", the figurative one. Some of these sound more too modern than others, but they're to appeal to the modern people reading this, because eschewing a vivid unfolding may have been the crux of the original intention.

But it also could be a mode of referencing men in that situation by quoting the phrase they would use themselves to describe it from their point of view. Like Mister "Come here, dear". And the phrase, as Stuart F suggests, could be an ironing-out facetious impoliteness, if the word "bitch" made comical sense for the group.

Maybe the desired effect is a resonance of some of the above, but if I had to vote, I'd go with the butterflies.

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