The Origin of ‘Who Dat?’

It goes back to minstrelsy, but it’s OK to say it now.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Is it OK to say “Who Dat?” Now that the Saints have won the Super Bowl, the phrase (if anyone had missed it before) is ubiquitous, and the question is both moot and even more pressing.

The answer is yes, it’s OK.

The phrase has its roots in vernacular poetry of the 19th century and was popularized by black entertainers. The documented history of the phrase begins with the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), famous for poems such as “We Wear the Mask” and the line “I know why the caged bird sings” (from the poem “Sympathy”) and well as for humorous verse written in black dialect. His poem “When Malindy Sings” (1895) features the lines “Who dat says dat humble praises/Wif de Master nevah counts?” The idea behind writing dialect was that the language evoked the real speech of the folk population.

In 1898, Dunbar collaborated with gifted African-American composer Will Marion Cook (1869-1944), who had studied violin at Oberlin Conservatory and composition with Antonin Dvorák at the National Conservatory in New York, to write the lyrics and libretto to a show called “Clorindy: The Origin of the Cake Walk.” “Clorindy” opened at the fashionable Casino Roof Garden on Broadway the summer of 1898. The show featured an all-black cast (no blackface) and was an immediate hit (the New York Times called it “sensational”). The most popular number was “Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd”:

Who Dat Say Chicken In Dis Crowd