CULTURE & ARTS
08/28/2015 08:59 am ET

Sorry, White People, Sylvia Plath Did Not Invent 'Basic'

Maybe it's time to accept that "basic" was not invented by white people at all.
So basic.
AP/AP
So basic.

Guys. I thought we’d been over this. I thought it was settled.

“Basic,” a slang term perceived by mainstream white America as referring to blond women wearing yoga pants and holding pumpkin spice lattes, has been repeatedly investigated and determined to derive from black slang, not the verbal stylings of white girls on the Internet.

It was not popularized by Kate MossAnd no, it was not invented by Sylvia Plath.

However, every time a white person uses a term appropriated from African-American Vernacular English, the media rush to attribute the miraculous invention or elevation of this term to said white person. Unfortunately, a tongue-in-cheek tweet from writer Alana Massey earlier this month has, unintentionally, given the white origin rumors for “basic” new life.

“You'd be forgiven for thinking that this insult was invented by young people very recently,” wrote Helena Horton in The Telegraph, “but an eagle-eyed Twitter user managed to spot the word being used as an insult, apparently in the same context by the writer Sylvia Plath in The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath.”

You’d be forgiven for not giving due credit to a white poet’s private journal for creating a slang term which originated in, and was popularized by, black Americans within the past few decades. It’s okay! You should have known it could all be traced back to white people, just like rock ’n’ roll and voguing. But it’s not too late to educate yourself.

Not that this was the intention of Massey’s original observation; in later tweets, she clarified:

Horton’s article in The Telegraph, as well as a later piece in The Guardian, fail to mention a single black person by name, or black culture at large, in reference to the formulation of the term “basic” in its modern, informal sense. 

The Guardian, at least, points out the obvious: that Plath’s usage of “basic” seems to differ from the current slang connotation. “Her ‘basic’ interactions with her date, after all, see her getting ‘lost in his eyes’ and ‘loving him for sharing a little of what matters with you.'" "Basic," in a dictionary sense, simply denotes the most elemental or easy aspects of something, and her deployment of it here more likely intended to evoke this, than to summon an image of basic bitches in pearls. Though for the modern reader, it does conjure a topical chuckle.

Still, we apparently remain desperate for an origin story we can understand, for a version of history in which “basic” was thought up by Sylvia Plath and reinvigorated by Kate Moss and Kreayshawn. Figures like comedian Lil Duval, the group Klymaxx, Tyga and The Game rarely factor into these investigations by white writers, who are writing for predominantly white audiences.

Or, even better, we can simply ignore the origins altogether and focus on how self-deprecatingly basic we are, with our Starbucks addictions and our proclivities for TSwift and skinny margs and "Sex and the City." All us white girls who somehow came to be described as basic without help from anyone else.

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