When Melania Trump graced the podium in Cleveland on Monday night, she delivered lines that sounded eerily reminiscent of Michelle Obama’s address eight years before. Among those lines: “From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life. That your word is your bond. And you do what you say and keep your promise.”
And here’s Obama in 2008: “And Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond, that you do what you say you’re going to do.”
The phrase “your word is your bond” has roots in black America, with a rich hip-hop history. The internet consensus seems to be that Trump’s use of the slogan is an obvious “tell”—a clueless bit of parroting from a Slovenian immigrant who would never organically find her way to those words.
Of course, word-bond equivalence—the idea of it, if not the precise phrasing deployed by Trump and Obama—reaches back centuries. The books of Matthew and Numbers both contain passages in which one’s spoken vow becomes a sacred commitment. In Numbers, the Hebrew elder Moshe instructs the tribes of Israel: “When a man … swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” Chaucer, too, punned on the idea of “trouthe”—to “pledge one’s trouthe” meant both to enter into an indissoluble contract and to affirm the semantic “truth” of the words manifesting that contract. The Bishop of Exeter, Joseph Hall, wrote in 1608 of “the honest man”: “His word is his parchment.”
According to Rachael Ferguson, an ethnographer and lecturer at Princeton University, the principle “word is bond” allowed merchant traders in the late 1500s to make agreements legally binding before the advent of written pledges. When the London Stock Exchange needed a motto in 1801, it harkened back to that foundational promise of integrity with a Latin expression: dictum meum pactum.
By the 19th century, your word is your bond” had ascended into the realms of moralistic cliché. In an 1842 “admonitory epistle from a governess to her late pupils,” for instance, the upstanding educator drills her charges: “Let it be said of you, ‘Your word is your bond.’ ”
But to utter this phrase in the 2016 United States is to invoke an entirely different history. As Geneva Smitherman recounts in Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner, yo word is yo bond represents a “resurfacing of an old familiar saying in the Black Oral Tradition.” It was popularized some time after 1964 by the Five Percent Nation, an Islamic group that stressed authenticity and self-knowledge alongside social progressivism. (The affirmation Word is born—a response kind of like Amen that indicates enthusiastic buy-in; also a Run DMC song—is thought to be a “result of the AAE pronunciation of ‘bond,’ ” writes Smitherman.)
The Five Percenters left a deep imprint on hip-hop—and the blogger Patrick has a great, thorough rundown of the cross-pollination between them and rappers like Busta Rhymes and Q-Tip. Jamaican-born rap pioneer Kool Herc enlisted members of FPN in his security team. Emcee Rakim, of the golden age duo Eric B. and Rakim, released a song with the lyrics: “Turn up the bass and let the system thump / A block party starts to form, people start to swarm / Loud as a ghetto blaster, word is bond.” The phrase soon wended its way toward shibboleth status in the rhymes of artists from Big Daddy Kane (“And I’m lovin’ em right, word is bond”) to LL Cool J (“I do it for you, word is bond.”) As Patrick explains, peak word is bond arrived with the Wu-Tang Clan. The group consciously and deliberately threaded messages from the Five Percent Nation—and the partially overlapping Zulu Nation—into their work. In “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta F’ Wit,” for example, RZA sums it up: “Peace to the fuckin Zulu Nation / Peace to all the Gods and the Earths, word is bond.”
So when Michelle Obama told convention-goers that her word was her bond, she was both retrieving a powerful saw from the ethical canon and, perhaps, signifying to black listeners. When Melania Trump stole her language, she signified too: that she was clueless, sure, but in the signature American way of a white woman who takes from a black woman without any real sense of what she’s talking about.