BamaPosted: February 8, 2016
By the time Costa got fired for using it, ’Bama had been around for quite some time, and its meaning and use had changed. Most likely, the word was first used to put down recent arrivals to D.C.’s black neighborhoods from southern states—especially Alabama, says cultural anthropologist and long time Smithsonian staffer John Franklin. “It’s had currency over several generations,” Franklin says. It was a way of calling someone a black hick: “There was some disdain for people who didn’t live in the city and weren’t sophisticated.” The word had particular weight during the Great Migration, when many African Americans left the rural South for northern cities. Then, the point was to differentiate the newer arrivals from the longtime Washingtonians—who worried that the countrified Southerners flooding the District would reflect badly on the whole community. It was, essentially, the way D.C.’s black residents called one of their own a redneck. (Around the same time, German Jews who had already been in the U.S. for a few decades coined their own slang term to put down their less sophisticated Russian and Polish cousins—and thus, “kike” was born, only becoming a generalized ethnic slur afterwards.)
Eventually, ’Bama lost most of the geographic connotations it once had, and melted into just another piece of regional slang. Even white kids like Costa learned what it meant, picking it up by osmosis from the culture around them. Costa says his own definition of ’Bama is that it refers to a person who is “stupid.” He spent most of his life in the Baltimore-Washington area, and says he and his friends grew up using “the B-word” all the time.