NPR

People Be Triflin', From 'Bills, Bills, Bills' To The Bible

Yes, this ad was really in the newspaper – from the October 1, 1922 New York Tribune. (Library of Congress)

In our semi-regular Word Watch feature, we take a look at a word or phrase that's caught our attention, whether for its history, usage, etymology, or just because it has an interesting story.

When I was growing up in N.C., I knew that, along with shiftless and lazy, one of the worst things a person could be was triflin'. The way my grandma used the word, it seemed to mean shiftless, lazy, useless, worthless and no-good all at once – so nooooo, you did not want to be triflin'.

In the years since, triflin' has become a part of my vocabulary and I use it – well, I won't say "often," but "rarely" wouldn't be entirely accurate either. It's just the right word to use sometimes when I, er, accidentally, watch certain reality TV shows. (I'm looking at YOU, Stevie J.)

And while the word doesn't have the same sting as it did when my grandma used it, I'm far from the only black person to find it a go-to word.

For instance, President Obama used it in his book, Dreams Of My Father, something authors H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman pointed out in a 2012 New York Times op-ed about the president's use of language on the campaign trail:

Observers have noted Mr. Obama's use of black slang in relation to hip-hop culture, his use of words like "flow" (the mapping of rhymes onto a beat) or "tight" (cool, hip). In his memoir "Dreams From My Father," Mr. Obama also used words and phrases that are not as widely known outside the black community, like "trifling" (lazy and inadequate) and "high-yella" (a reference to light-skinned blacks).

And of course, Beyonce and her Destiny's Child cohorts used it over and over and over again on the song, "Bills, Bills, Bills":

But the usage of "triflin'" to mean "lazy" goes back much farther than Beyonce or my grandma. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the 1535 Coverdale Bible includes this passage from I Timothy 5:13: "Not onely are they ydell, but also tryflinge & busybodies, speakynge thinges which are not comly." (The New International Version of the Bible puts it this way: "And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to.")

Ben Zimmer, the executive producer of vocabulary.com and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, pointed me to the Dictionary of American Regional English, which tells us the word is chiefly used today in the South and Midland regions. And he explained via email that "there are a few interrelated meanings in Southern and African-American dialects: 'lazy, shiftless, worthless' (from 1832), 'tired, draggy, under the weather' (from 1887), and 'sexually promiscuous' (from 1924). That last sense has frequently been used in blues lyrics for untrustworthy members of the opposite sex."

This short list of songs from Black Recording Artists, 1877-1926: A Blues Dialect confirms that last point:

  • "Triflin' Blues"
  • "Triflin' Blues (Daddy Don't You Trifle)"
  • "Triflin' Blues (Daddy Don't You Trifle on Me)"
  • "A Triflin' Daddy's Blues"
  • "Triflin' Man"

But men, before you get all het up, know that women can be triflin' too, according to Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary:

A faithless female. Roark Bradford's dialect novel John Henry (1931) contains a ministerial denunciation of "...triflin' women...You bears false witness on yo'friends and unlocks yo'back door to de creepers."

The usage of triflin' to mean "cheating" or "false" is the oldest one of all, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, going back at least as far as Le Morte d'Arthur.

There's something comforting about the fact that when we say folks are triflin', we're taking it all the way back to the 15th century.

Tanya Ballard Brown — who is never triflin'! — is an editor for NPR.org who often sings Michael Jackson songs at her desk. Loudly. You can reach out to her on Facebook, Google+, Tumblr and Twitter.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Most Popular