AskDefine | Define signifying

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. present participle of signify
    Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
    that struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    and then is heard no more: it is a tale
    told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    signifying nothing.
    Macbeth, Act V, Scene V.

Extensive Definition

Signifyin (slang) is an African-American rhetorical device featuring indirect communication or persuasion and the creating of new meanings for old words and signs. Signifying, in this sense, includes repetition and difference, implication and association, combining words and meanings to create or associate new ones.
In everyday practice signifying consists of telling people you know what you think about them or their actions, or making some other point, in an indirect way. Literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. (1988, xxi, 44, 52) takes the signifying monkey tales of African-American folklore and the pan-African Yoruba Esu-Elegbara to function "as a metaphor for formal revision, or intertextuality, within the Afro-American literary tradition" which he further describes as "the rhetorical principle in Afro-American vernacular discourse." Among other examples, he cites "marking, loud-talking, testifying, calling out (of one's name), sounding, rapping, playing the dozens," and Ralph Ellison's play on Richard Wright's Native Son and Black Boy in his Invisible Man. Other examples are found in stylized bouts of verbal bragging, called toasting, and in hip hop techniques and forms such as sampling and answer records. Roger Abrahams (n.d.) cites the subversive elements of the improvised and repetitive lyrics of old work-songs such as collected by John and Alan Lomax.
The article 'Signifying Nothing' by D.G. Myers is about the book The Signifying Monkey and offers the following significant description of signifying: "What is the concept of signifying? Gates notes that "few scholars have succeeded in defining it as a full concept," and although he devotes twenty-five pages to the effort, it must be owned that he is little more successful. Gates is best at gathering together other people's definitions. To signify, according to the jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow, is to "hint, to put on an act, boast, make a gesture." The novelist Zora Neale Hurston defines signifying as "a contest in hyperbole carried on for no other reason." In these conceptions, signifying sounds not too different from the traditional category of rhetoric known as "epideictic," a term used for a display piece, a speech the sole purpose of which is to put the orator's gifts on display (epideixis), and not with any practical intention. Yet to assimilate black signifying to the "Eurocentric" tradition of classical rhetoric is to lose "what we might think of as the discrete black difference." And so Gates takes pains to track the concept to Africa instead."
Caponi (1999) "describes calls, cries, hollers, riffs, licks, overlapping antiphony" as examples of signifying in hip hop music and other African-American music. He explains that signifying differs from simple repetition and from simple variation in that it uses material "rhetorically or figuratively — through troping, in other words — by trifling with, teasing, or censuring it in some way (Wentworth and Flexman 1960; Major 1970). Signifyin(g) is also a way of demonstrating respect for, goading, or poking fun at a musical style, process, or practice through parody, pastische, implication, indirection, humor, tone- or word-play, the illusions of speech, or narration, and other troping mechanisms… Signifyin(g) shows, among other things, either reverence or irreverence toward previously stated musical statements and values." (141) Schloss (2004, 138) relates this to the ambiguity common to African musics including looping (as of a sample) for "it allows individuals to demonstrate intellectual power while simultaneously obscuring the nature and extent of their agency… It allows producers to use other people's music to convey their own compositional ideas".


  • Caponi, Gena Dagel (1999). Signifyin(G), Sanctifyin', & Slam Dunking: A Reader in African American Expressive Culture. University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 1-55849-183-X.
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. (1988) The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-503463-5.
  • Schloss, Joseph G. (2004). Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop. Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 0-8195-6696-9.
  • Myers, D.G. Signifying Nothing. New Criterion 8 (February 1990): 61-64.
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