This is the latest installment in our weekly series, The Language of the Blues, in which author and rocker Debra Devi explores the meaning of a word or phrase from a blues song. Come back every week for the latest! Devi’s award-winning book, The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to ZuZu, includes a foreword by Dr. John and is blurbed by Bonnie Raitt and Joe Bonamassa. Get your signed copy at Bluescentric.com!
To dig something is to understand or appreciate it—to “get” it. As Albert Collins sings in “Give Me My Blues”:
I play my music the only way that I can Play my music only, only way I can Some people really dig it Some just don’t understand
Linguist Dr. David Dalby traced this usage of “dig” to the Wolof words deg or dega, which mean “to understand, to call attention to, or to appreciate,” in his fascinating 1972 paper “The African Element in American English.” In Wolof, deg or dega were often used to mark the beginning of a sentence, as in dega nga olof: “Do you understand Wolof?”
The Wolof people were among the first Africans to encounter European traders. The transatlantic slave trade began with some curious Portuguese sailors who reached the mouth of the Senegal River in 1445 and began trading with local Wolof people. At that time, the Wolof enjoyed a wealthy empire in western Senegal along the Gambia River.
In 1673, however, the Islamic Fulani, who lived just east of the Wolof Empire, waged a jihad, or holy war—raiding Wolof territories in an attempt to convert the Wolof people to the Muslim religion. Over the next few decades, the Wolof were also attacked by their Islamic neighbors to the north, the Mauretanians. During these battles, many Wolof people were captured by Fulani and Mauretanians and sold to British slave traders. Traders taught English to some of the enslaved Wolof so they could be used as interpreters and mariners during voyages along the African coast.
This influx of Wolof slaves arrived in South Carolina between 1670 and 1750. Since some already knew a little English, and most arrived with useful skills such as blacksmithing, leatherworking, and butchery, they were employed primarily as house servants. As a result, many Wolof words passed into English, including “yam,” “banana,” “bug” (from bugal, to annoy), “chigger” (from jiga, for insect, or sand flea), and the use of “guy” as a personal address (from gay, meaning “fellows” or “persons”).
“Give Me My Blues”- Albert Collins
“I Know What You’re Putting Down”- Louis Jordan and Bud Allen
Albert Collins – “Give Me My Blues”