Behind the Dictionary

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"Bae" Watch: The Ascent of a New Pet Name

Having associated the interjection boo with ghosts since childhood, it took me a while to get used to it as a term of endearment for one's (presumably living) significant other. However, it's been around long enough by now that some of you may well have grown up with it. Maybe kids today find the idea of a ghost frightening someone with an eerie "Boo!" about as sensible as a zombie snarling "Sweetheart!" or "Darling!" But never mind boo: it's time to get ready for bae, the latest monosyllabic pet name starting with B.

Like boo, bae originates in African American English. The Oxford English Dictionary speculates that boo might come from beau, but ultimately judges its origin uncertain. Bae, on the other hand, has a pretty straightforward etymology: It started as a clipped form of baby or babe. Or did it? (More on that later.) The earliest evidence I've found for the existence of bae is a chart generated on the website Rap Genius, which indicates that bae has been turning up in rap songs since 2005, although their search interface makes it hard to confirm.

In late 2012 and on into 2013, bae spread into wider awareness thanks to several several internet memes. The first, known as "Bae caught me slippin'," requires some explanation. Imagine that someone, let's say Mikayla, has a boyfriend she's on sleeping terms with. One day her "bae" finds her sleeping. Quietly picking up her camera phone, he takes a picture of the scene. Mikayla wakes up later, finds the picture in her camera phone, and posts it on Instagram, so that everyone can understand that she has a boyfriend who sometimes is present when she's sleeping, nudge nudge.

Now imagine that Mikayla doesn't actually have a boyfriend, but she wants to post one of these pictures anyway, so she takes it herself, closing her eyes and snapping the crypto-selfie as best she can. Finally, now imagine that Mikayla is so unaware that when she views the picture, she doesn't even notice that her arm is in the frame, or that her camera hand is reflected in a mirror she forgot about. Oh, and her spelling isn't so good. Now when she posts the pic with the caption "Bae caught me slippin'," all the viewers get a laugh at her expense.

The "Bae caught me slippin" meme consisted of people pretending to be as clueless as the hypothetical Mikayla, and posting increasingly ridiculous sleeping selfies. This meme, in fact, prompted lexicographer Grant Barrett to nominate bae as the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year for 2013 (though that title ended up going to because).

A few months after "Bae caught me slippin'" caught on, the meme "Cooking for bae"  was started on Instagram and Twitter by an anonymous Georgia woman. This stream of photos shows disastrous dishes (often referred to as "struggle meals," but that's a topic for another time) served up by people trying to cook something "for the bae."

More recent still is the meme "You got a bae? Or nah?" As far as I've been able to pinpoint this one, it originated in late 2013 with Tina Woods, aka Too Turnt Tina, a teenage user of Vine, the social media site that lets you share looping 6-second video clips. (Turnt is another topic for another time.) I haven't found her original Vine clip, but there are dozens of clips (like this one) labeled with the hashtag "remake" and Too Turnt Tina's name, and they all consist of people chanting, "You got a bae? Or nah? You tryna date? Or nah?" (Or nah is yet another topic for another time. Tryna you can learn more about here.)

Coming back to the etymology of bae, it turns out that for a few years, a very different origin story has been going around: It's an acronym for "before anyone else." The earliest example of someone making this connection that I've found is this tweet from 2011:

My girl hates being called bae but i still call her that bc it stands for Before Anyone Else

Hundreds of tweets, and several Urban Dictionary entries, promulgate this idea, and it's amazing how easily people will believe it, based on nothing but the say-so of some ordinary person on the internet. Many of them even say, in surprise, that all this time they had just thought it was the "ghetto" pronunciation of babe, and yet from there, their reaction is acceptance. That's why tweets like this one from Twitter user Will Poulter are so welcome:

BAE = Before Anyone Else. I Got it, its useful in a queue... like, 'Are you BAE?'. I got it, I definitely got it.

Aside from the existence of many bogus acronymic etymologies, including such old favorites as "port outward, starboard home" and "for unlawful carnal knowledge," there are several other reasons not to buy this BAE story.

  1. Occam's Razor, part I. Given the meaning of bae, the simplest origin is that it derives from babe via deletion of the final consonant.
  2. Timing. The first references to bae as standing for "before anyone else" appear six years after the earliest attestations of bae that I've found.
  3. Spelling variation. Going back at least five years, you can find the word spelled bay, as it is in this tweet: "going to breakfast with my family....coming back home to work on my essay for nursing school n going out with my bay later. u?"
  4. Non-romantic usage. In addition to referring to a lover, bae/bay turns up in the phrases bae bro and bae sis ("baby brother," "baby sister"), as in this tweet from 2009: "And Max's bae bro was down with dude from Spic N Spanish. It's all too much!"
  5. Occam's Razor, part II. There are more elaborate etymologies for bae that are still more plausible than the acronymic explanation. For example, in the same way that police becomes the po-po, initial syllable reduplication of baby gives bay-bay or bae-bae, which are both attested on Twitter. For example, here's a tweet that seems to be from a mother taking her kids to see the movie that killed the previous Spider-Man franchise: "Seeing spider man 3 with the bay bay's." Bay/bae could then be produced by haplology.
  6. Occam's Razor, part III. Alternatively, bay-bay could be a result of "lowering" the final vowel of baby, in the same way as party gets twisted into par-tay. Haplology for the finishing touch as above. This is the least likely of the three possibilities, in my opinion, but even this one is based on linguistic processes that are attested.

On the other hand, because so many people do believe in "before anyone else" as the origin of bae, and use it with this meaning sincerely in mind, we have to at least recognize its current legitimacy as one meaning of bae, regardless of its syrupy and completely fabricated nature.

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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.