CONTEXTUAL MEANING

Most bilingual dictionaries define the American slang “shuck and jive” as something like “misrepresentation, deception, eyewash, cock-and-bull story, etc.” (that is, when you translate the foreign part of the definition back into English). If to be limited by the limitations of two-language dictionaries, a learner of English may not understand why President Obama’s team could be sensitive to Sarah Palin’s words when the latter accused him of “shuck-and-jiving” while handling the attack in Benghazi (http://www.facebook.com/notes/sarah-palin/obamas-shuck-and-jive-ends-with-benghazi-lies/10151118681228435 ). Chris Matthews, an anchor at the television show Hardball, said that this expression has a “particular ethnic connotation.” I made a brief search through some monolingual dictionaries and encyclopaedias to find that “to shuck and jive” originally referred to the intentionally misleading words and actions that African-Americans would employ in order to deceive racist Euro-Americans in power, both during the period of slavery and afterwards. The expression was documented as being in wide usage in the 1920s, but may have originated much earlier. “Shucking and jiving” was a tactic of both survival and resistance. A slave, for instance, could say eagerly, “Oh, yes, Master,” and have no real intention to obey. Or an African-American man could pretend to be working hard at a task he was ordered to do, but might put up this pretense only when under observation. Both would be instances of “doin’ the old shuck ‘n jive.”
It has been adopted into non-Afro-American speech, with a reference to behavior adopted in order to avoid criticism, e.g. In order to keep my job, I had to do the shuck and jive! It is this, more extended meaning of the word that the former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate meant when she responded to the accusation:

there was nothing remotely racist in my use of the phrase ‘shuck and jive’—a phrase which many people have used, including Chris Matthews, Andrew Cuomo, and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney to name a few off the top of my head….In fact, Andrew Cuomo also used the phrase in reference to Barack Obama, and the fact that Mr. Cuomo and I used the phrase in relation to President Obama signifies nothing out of the ordinary. I would have used the exact same expression if I had been writing about President Carter, whose foreign policy rivaled Obama’s in its ineptitude, or about the Nixon administration, which was also famously rocked by a cover-up. I’ve been known to use the phrase most often when chastising my daughter Piper to stop procrastinating and do her homework. As she is part Yup’ik Eskimo, I’m not sure if this term would be deemed offensive when it’s directed at her or if it would be considered benign as in the case of Chris Matthews’ use of it in reference to Rachel Maddow. Just to be careful, from now on I’ll avoid using it with Piper, and I would appreciate it if the media refrained from using words and phrases like igloo, Eskimo Pie, and “when hell freezes over,” as they might be considered offensive by my extended Alaska Native family.” (http://www.facebook.com/sarahpalin/posts/10151232848473588 )

 

I consulted my daughter, who had lived in the U.S.A. for quite some time, about how the Americans use the expression “shuck and jive”. She said that there was nothing offensive if this word combination was used either in an “only-black” or “only-white” community. However, in a white person’s talk referring to an Afro-American, the expression could acquire some “undesirable connotations” and should, probably, be avoided within the framework of political correctness.

A finishing detail: when African Americans heard former President Bill Clinton call Barack Obama a “kid”, that was seen as an insult. Mr. Obama was a 46-year-old man who was a United States senator. It was remindful of grown black men being called “boy” during the Jim Crow era. Seemingly, no harm was done, but … the context has meaning.

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