Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Changing Meanings Of Being Sassy

Written by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a post on the word "sassy". Part I provides a general overview of meanings that have been given to the word "sassy".

Click for Part II of this post.>

Part II continues an exploration of the meaning of "sassy", particularly as it has been used in referent to Black females.

Part I

Is “sassy” a compliment or an insult? Your response to this question might depend on which definition of the word you mean. And, to a considerable extent, which definition of this adjective you mean may depend on your age, race, and/or the sexual orientation of the person you are describing. Your geographical location within the United States or elsewhere and the historical context may also factor into what you mean by the word “sassy” and whether you meant something positive or negative when you used that word. indicates that the word "sassy" is an alteration of the adjective “saucy”. According to that site, the first documented use of the word “sassy” was in 1833. Merriam-Webster gives the following meanings for "sassy":

1. Rude and disrespectful, impudent
2. Lively and spirited, jaunty
3. Stylish, chic

The synonyms listed by Merriam-Webster for sassy are ”arch, audacious, bold, bold-faced, brash, brashbound, brassy, brazen, brazen-faced, cheeky, cocksure, cocky, fresh, impertinent, impudent, insolent, nervy, saucy, [and] wise”.

The antonyms of sassy that Merriam-Webster lists are “meek, mousy (or mousey), retiring, shy, and timid.”

All of the antonyms listed are still familiar words. In contrast, a number of the synonyms are outdated and/or words whose contemporary meanings have added nuances.

As of 9/3/2011, the online site Urban Dictionary has 36 entries from its visitors for the word "sassy". The highest rated [by visitors] definition of “sassy” on that site was entered by Tittillesworth on July 16, 2004:
“possessing the attitude of someone endowed with an ungodly amount of cool.”

Sarah K. Smith is unusually sassy.
Many of the urbandictionary.coms definitions for the word "sassy" are synonyms for “cool”, "hip", and/or "spirited".

And entry #7 shows that even when contemporary definitions for a word are basically the same as older definitions, more positive meanings have been given to the words:
“Someone who is full of themselves but in a good way. They're cheeky, lively, smart, saucy, slightly impudent, mouthy, cocky, energetic, loud and extremely talkative.”
[its not like I’m Maddy, Feb 13, 2011]
It's important to note that some contributors to that Urban Dictionary site indicated that the word “sassy” is more closely associated with African American females. Furthermore, the contemporary use of "sassy" appears to have expanded to include males who are effeminate. For example, here's the #5 rated entry:

“rude and disrespectful but in a way that is cute, adorable, or entertaining (or at least regarded by others as such). Originally "sassy" was commonly used to describe young children, but in today's pop culture, has become a term commonly used to describe both young children and women of any age (particularly African American women); the term typically isn't used to describe teenage males and adult men unless effeminate.”

"Girl, you better watch your mouth before you find yourself hurt," snapped sassy Yolanda.

Mark, a metrosexual man, is so sassy; he snapped his fingers in our faces and told us we didn't meet his standards before kicking us out of the building.
[Crocker 33, January 13, 2009]
Entry #23 is another example of a racialized definition of the word "sassy":

“An angry black woman.”

Did you meet Clara's sassy black friend Monique?
[ToastyPastry Sep 8, 2006]
And #28 provides these definitions for “sassy”

1. The art of being rude and angry with a combination of emotionalgestures and attitude.

2. Queen Latifa.

3. Angry and rude black women in general.

I'm so sassy, you go girl!
[GUnit Feb 6, 2004]

I’m just guessing, but those racialized definitions strongly suggest to me that most of the contributors to Urban Dictionary (at least regarding the word “sassy”) are non-Black.

Certain comments posted to a November 2008 Huffington Post article on Sasha Obama are the best online examples that I have found to date of the what “sassy” means for a number of African Americans, including me: by Anya Strzemian, 11/13/2008

Here's a comment from that article from IWillCallYouOut; 11/16/2008

"While I think she [Sasha Obama] is adorable...It is problematic to characterize a seven year old black girl as sassy, or any black woman as sassy at this late date.

For all of you not possessing black skin and ovaries, I’m here to let you know that “sassy” is a no no. It’s a played out stereotype that I’m sick of. I got my foot run over by a coworker and complain about it only to be informed that I am “sassy” and then told to calm down. This example is clearly hyperbole, but sadly it’s not far from reality.

This is an esteemed paper with esteemed editors, diction matters. This whole article could have been (and seems to be mostly about) spunk, stage presence, cuteness, precocity, why couldn’t we choose a different word? Because the ingrained stereotypes in our brained reached for the word “sassy” and it resonated with an image of a black girl?...

Just sayin’..."
Some commenters mentioned that [former Governor of Alaska, and former Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s daughter] Piper was also featured in a similar Huffington Post article. In response, commenter jdmba wrote on 11/15/2008

"Now, if you go to look at Piper Palin’s pictures, no one in the comments calls her ”sassy”. In fact, one commenter says that she doesn’t see what’s so sassy about Piper since she’s not “flipping the bird” or “rolling her eyes”

jdmba also wrote several other comments to that article about the meaning of “sassy” for African Americans. Here are two more of those comments:

jdmba (11/13/2008)

“The funniest thing is that growing up as a Black female, “sass” was never a good thing. If you acted sassy toward your elders, you were in all kinds of trouble.

I’ve never heard a Black female compliment another one by calling them “sassy”."
Jmbd (11/13/2008)

"...I’ve personally never heard “sassy” used to describe white girls.They’re “bold”, “strong personalities”, or “spunky”. For Black women, it’s the whole neck/eye rolling stereotype. “Attitude”. These are the subconscious perceptions/expectations that other races project onto Black women. I get that at work all the time-if I’m not goon-grinning then I’m read as sassy and intimidating.

That is why Michelle [Obama] had to play down her brilliance for the election. She was “scary” and “sassy”.

Apparently I’m not alone in having this experience and I’m not going to be shouted down because people are uncomfortable with the subtleties of their racial schema."
Most comments on that above mentioned Huffington Post article appeared to define “sassy” as a complimentary term which means “spirited, and/or “spunky”. But jackson1015 [11/13/2008] notes that there are negative and positive meanings of the word “sassy”
“There’s nothing sleazy about calling a child sassy; sass is backtalk, and sassy is being impudent or giving backtalk-in the negative sense – in the positive, it is another way of saying that she is cute and precocious.

My pov=sassy means a self-assured person who isn’t afraid of speaking up for herself or himself (usually refers to females). Opposite of reserved, shy, not confident”.
However, a few White women confirmed the statements of those Black commenters that “sassy” was something that wasn’t cool to be:

littlepitcher 11/167/2008 responded to IWillCallYouOut‘s comment by writing
"I can sympathize—They do it to us low class hillbilly gals too.”Sassy” is the first warning. “Insubordinate” is the second and usually the last one. And it’s always for saying something a guy could use to get a laugh with, and get away with."

And carolcobra1947 (11/14/2008) wrote:

"...I’m a 61-year-old white woman. When my parents called me sassy it was because I was being disrespectful. I dearly remember the phrase “Don’t you sass me!” Maybe it’s a southern thing...I was raised in Georgia...

Word connotations do change over time, as word usage does...But the emotional responses to certain type of visual stimuli doesn’t change and I know that this photo will elicit emotional responses that I don’t even want to think about from sensual to hateful."
The visual stimuli that carolcobra1947 may have meant is the lead photo for this article which shows 7 year old Sasha Obama in a typical “sassy Black female” stance: Sasha is standing leaning slightly back with both hands on her hips, looking straight at a person or persons with a slight closed smile on her face.
One commenter to that same Huffington Post article, Isis (11/13/2008) suggested that a person’s age determined the meaning she or he gives to the word “sassy”:
"The 30 and under crowd use sassy as a compliment. It’s like “cool”. My kids are all “sassy”.
In response to that comment jmbd wrote on 11/13/2008
I’m a 27 y/o Black female. I repeat. My friends and I never use the term for one another. But people of other cultures use it on us.

White people consider it to be the same as fun, spirited, spunky, lively, Black people equate it with “attitude” meaning a bad, confrontational attitude."
On 11/14/2008, HuffPost moderator propitiousmoment wrote:
"I am a white female, and we were told not to sass, don’t give me no sass,don’t get sassy-it means backtalk,impudence etc. And it evolved to over the course of a generation or so to mean cute and spunky. Of course it has been co-opted by the porn types to mean spunky in a sexual way...

I do empathize with women who have had the term used against them in a racial context, and I’m not implying that I agree with that usage.However, I hardly think that HuffPo used it with that intention at all."
It should be mentioned that some African Americans may use “sassy” in at least somewhat complimentary terms. Take, for example, this title of an October 1997 Ebony Magazine article:

“Viveca A. Fox, Hollywood’s Sassiest New Star-African American Actress" by Aldore D. Collier
Viveca A Fox, Hollywood's Sassiest New Star
Also, “Sassy” was the nickname given to jazz great Sarah Vaughn”.
According to Sarah vaughn "Band pianist John Malachi is credited with giving Vaughn the moniker “Sassy”, a nickname that matched her personality. Vaughn liked it and the name (and its shortened variant “Sass”) stuck with colleagues and, eventually, the press. In written communications Vaughn often spelled it “Sassie”."
And Maya Angelou included this somewhat complimentary reference to Black females sassiness in her now famous poem “Still I Rise”:

"Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room. "
So what does “sassy” mean and how did its meanings change-if you think that they have changed? Well, it’s complicated.

Click for Part II of this post.>

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Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. I am Dutch white female copywriter and was randomly searching the web for the meaning of the word 'sassy'. Wanted to know if it was still being used, as English is not my mother tongue. I only knew it in the positive 'spunky, lively' meaning, now I know this is not always so.

    Thank you for your article, you have educated someone today!

    1. Greetings, Karina.

      I appreciate your comment. It's good to know that someone is reading the posts that I write.

      Best wishes to you from the USA!

  2. You may not see this as you may not even use this blog anymore but here goes.
    Im a 26yo Caucasian male who has been called 'sassy' but a female who i would very much like to forge a relationship with (so far to no avail), so my question is this; what the hell could that possibly mean?

    1. I'm sorry, anonymous Feb. 5, 2015. I just read your comment.

      As to what a female would mean by calling a male "sassy", it might mean that you have a "smart mouth", that is you are witty, and come up with some zingers (If so, I hope they are in good taste and not hurtful putdowns. ,

      I also hope that your relationship with the female you were interested worked out for you both- if it was meant to be.

  3. "Sassy", has been used in a negative way in my life by others in grade school. I think now, about who I am and who I have become I'm a corporate professional and I have natural leadership skills. I work hard so I no longer have introduce myself. I have become a corporate professional woman in workplace. Those types who called me sassy now work for me and I foster an enviroment where there is no place for bullies. :)

    1. Hello, anonymous April 7, 2015

      I appreciate you sharing your experiences. And I love your attitude!

  4. people seem to forget, its not, the words, that are spoken, but, the tone, of voice, used to express them ? sarcasm for example

  5. Thanks for your comment, anonymous.

    I agree, and the tone of voice (including sarcasm) is difficult to convey over the internet.