When Kayla Lewis was 16, she gave the world a word.
“Eyebrows on fleek,” she said on Vine, primping and preening.
It was the earliest known use of the soon-to-be-ubiquitous phrase on fleek. It quickly began to make the rounds online, circulating first through Black Twitter and then appearing in an Ariana Grande video before crossing over to mainstream beauty articles about how to make sure your own eyebrows were also on fleek. Eventually it became a way for corporate social media accounts to show the world they are hip with the kids today.
But as “on fleek” infiltrated America’s vocabulary in 2014, Lewis was erased from its lineage. No one seemed to know exactly where the term came from, or why it was so popular (although the dictionary was ready to explain it). It just was, as though it always had been.
Now Lewis is working to get the recognition she deserves. She’s interested in trademarking the phrase, and she’s launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money with the ultimate goal of starting her own cosmetics line. “Back in 2014 I came up with the phrase/word ‘Eyebrows on Fleek’ on a 6 sec video on a app called VINE,” her campaign summary begins. “Everyone has used the phrase/word but I haven't received any money behind it or recognition.”
It’s a familiar cycle. On fleek’s journey from Lewis’s Vine to the Denny’s Twitter account is another iteration of an old story, one in which language born from black culture is co-opted by mainstream society, which uses it to signify coolness. Inevitably, corporations find a way to monetize the language, and inevitably, its origins in black culture are erased. It’s the same story that may have given us words as ubiquitous as cool, okay, and hip.
Kayla Lewis didn’t make any money from the word she created, but other people did
There are records of the word fleek appearing before Kayla Lewis made a Vine in 2014. Alex Russell found it popping up in some 19th-century poetry (“The cold pale moonbeams fleek”), and it appeared on Urban Dictionary in 2003 (“smooth, nice, sweet”). Linguist Neal Whitman argues that it just sounds like it should be a word: “fleek sounds so much like an English word that you could almost say that it has always been there, but no one got around to assigning a meaning to it until recently.”
Kayla Lewis, however, is the person who linked it definitely to on, and who made it synonymous with on point.
“I actually just said it,” Lewis told me over email. “I never heard of ‘FLEEK,’ so when I made that video I really didn't expect for it blow up like this.”
Lewis was 16 at the time, and the now-defunct Vine was at its peak cultural influence. “I had a few followers but not many,” she said. “So when I made that video my Vine blew up from that.”
The Vine spread wildly, and with it on fleek. Ariana Grande set it to music.
“To me it felt like it happened all at once,” Lewis said. “Everywhere I looked somebody was saying ‘Fleek.’”
And, inevitably, brands got in on the game.
Pancakes on fleek.— IHOP (@IHOP) October 21, 2014
hashbrowns on fleek— Denny's (@DennysDiner) September 30, 2014
aaaaaahhh yeah thats the good shit pic.twitter.com/hkmu48kS3a— Virgil Texas (@virgiltexas) April 15, 2015
When Denny’s and IHOP and other big corporations and brands began to use on fleek to describe their various products, they were participating in a common form of cultural appropriation with a long, unfortunate history of minimizing the role black people have played in shaping American English. I reached out to Denny’s, IHOP, and Sour Patch Kids for comment and have not yet heard back from them.
American culture has been taking words from black people for centuries
Mainstream American culture has probably been appropriating black language since the slavery era. Since the nature of cultural appropriation is to make itself invisible — and since a lot of it happens orally, without written sources — it’s hard to track definitively. But Margaret Lee, a linguist and the author of the paper “Black Language in America,” tells me there’s compelling evidence to suggest that a lot of American English speech has its roots in West African dialects.
“Early on,” she said, “through direct contact with blacks, whites appropriated black words and phrases considered especially clever and creative and which seemed to fill a gap in the American English lexicon.” Specifically, the words dig (understand), hip (aware), mean (extraordinary), skin (hand, fingers), bogue (bogus, fake), and okay (all right) all have antecedents in West African dialects.
It’s likely that African slaves merged the vernacular structures of their native languages with English vocabulary, or in some cases imported new words outright, as with okay. White people picked up the new words and phrases and slang they liked, and then popularized them.
After slavery was abolished, mainstream America continued to pick up and appropriate language from black culture, mostly for the coolness factor. There was some social status inherent in being the kind of white person who knew words used by black people; it had prestige. So black America invented words, and white America took them. Lee sent me a small sampling:
“Usually,” Lee says, “once a word or phrase leaves the black community and goes mainstream, blacks consider it no longer cool, stop using it, and move on to the next creative term.”
And in the meantime, the word inevitably finds its way to a corporation that can monetize it. Bling goes from being a word invented by Dana Dane in a 1987 rap to a word used to sell diamonds.
It’s good for different cultures to share with each other. That’s not quite what’s happening here.
But why, you might be asking, is this a bad thing? America is all about different cultures mingling and sharing each other’s languages and ideas and customs — that’s what makes the great global melting pot!
And it’s true that it’s great for cultures to share and learn from each other. But it’s not great for one culture to take the products of another culture’s creativity while simultaneously oppressing the people of that culture. When a white person heard an enslaved black person say I dig and thought, “Wow, that word really fills a gap in American English, I think I’ll use it,” that was not two cultures mingling and blending. That was one culture exploiting another.
Today, white America continues to appropriate black slang at the same time that black people deal with systemic oppression. And one of the forms that oppression takes is linguistic prejudice, or prejudice against people who speak vernacular English.
Consider Rachel Jeantel, who testified against George Zimmerman in 2013, when he was on trial for shooting Trayvon Martin. In her testimony, Jeantel spoke in what’s known as African American Vernacular English, but court officials who expected her to speak standard English thought she was just making grammatical errors.
Stanford linguist John Rickford points to Jeantel’s testimony about the conversation she overheard through Martin’s cellphone between Martin and Zimmerman. Jeantel said she heard a scuffle, and then someone yelling, “Get off!” The prosecutor asked her if she could tell who was yelling, and the court transcript has Jeantel responding, "I couldn't know Trayvon.”
But Rickford doesn’t think she was saying that, because it doesn’t make sense in any variation of English. “When another linguist and I listened to the TV broadcast of the recording played in court we heard, instead, 'I could, an' it was Trayvon.' Now we would need to listen to an excellent recording of the original deposition, using good acoustic equipment, to verify these exact words," Rickford says. "But she definitely did not say what the transcript reports her to have said."
Jeantel’s testimony was misunderstood to the point of damaging her credibility as a legal witness. It was also roundly mocked, with commenters calling Jeantel “illiterate” and an example of “just how bad things can be.”
So: White America regularly takes language from black American culture. White people who use that language are rewarded socially. They’re seen as cool. Sometimes they turn the language into marketing copy and make money from it.
Black people who use the same language are penalized socially. They’re sometimes considered stupid and liars and people of poor character. Their legal testimony is misunderstood, mocked, and ignored.
That is cultural appropriation.
Lewis says she’s happy her word is popular, but she still wants something of her own
On fleek has followed the same path that okay and bling did before it. The person who created it earned nothing from her creativity, but someone else was able to use it to gain cool points and, by extension, turn a profit.
Lewis says she’s happy her word took off the way it did. “It feels amazing to see that I created something that everyone uses,” she told me. “And it is so positive. Nothing about that [original Vine] video is negative, in my opinion and my mom’s. I feel very proud of myself, actually.”
But she also notes that she made no money from her creation — and others, like the companies that use on fleek in their ads, have. “So many people have made MILLIONS off of ‘On Fleek’ or ‘FLEEK,’” she says. (There's no way to quantify how much money any given person has made from using the phrase "on fleek," but corporations have certainly used it to bolster their brands.)
That’s why Lewis is trying to start her own company, she says. (In the month since she launched her GoFundMe campaign, she’s raised approximately 1/15 of her $100,000 goal.) It’s also why she’s looking into trademarking the phrase: so that she “can get usage off of my word.” She added, “I want to have something of my own.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the title of Lee’s work as a book named Black Talk. It has been updated to reflect that it is a paper titled “Black Language in America.”