The word "ofay" got cut from one of my theater reviews this week. My intelligent, careful, and sensitive editor said nobody knows that word. Which is too bad.

I heard it as a kid while living in Louisiana and Virginia—it was a pejorative for white people, and far more dire than "honky." "Honky" was like "darkie" but "ofay" was like "nigger." That word had power, like a curse. If you really wanted to fuck with a white person, you called 'em "ofay."

"Ofay," as far as I could tell, was largely used by black folks among other black folks and never made the leap among white folks as a term of endearment, the way "nigger" did in the other direction. The only time I heard white folks use it is when they were quoting/imitating black folks.

(I'm not proud of how some adults around me behaved when I was a kid—but I was just a kid and my parents always had the decency to tell me that the racists who surrounded us where wrongheaded. Sometimes it felt like being a spy: I was too young to contradict the wrongheaded grownups—until a certain age where I started to argue with them, which was often profoundly uncomfortable because I was breaking the respect-your-elders code, which was still strong in the parts of the South I was a kid in—and I spent a lot of time watching people do and say things I knew were wrong. Anyway.)

Nobody knows where "ofay" comes from, but a few guesses. From the Online Etymological Dictionary:

Amer.Eng. black slang, "white person," 1925, of unknown origin. If, as is sometimes claimed, it derives from an African word, none corresponding to it has been found. Perhaps the most plausible speculation is Yoruba ófé "to disappear" (as from a powerful enemy), with the sense transf. from the word of self-protection to the source of the threat. OED regards the main alternative theory, that it is pig Latin for foe, to be an "implausible guess."

Another theory is that the Yoruba ófé was spoken to make the white person disappear. It also might come from the Ibibio word "afia," which means "light-colored."

From the OED (you need a password, but can get an account free through the library):

1932 Africa 5 506 The root of the word appears to come from the Ibibio Afia, white or light-coloured. Hence in Harlem Offay means any light-coloured person and therefore a European. 1956 B. HOLIDAY Lady sings Blues (1973) v. 52 Most of the ofays, the white people, who came to Harlem those nights were looking for atmosphere. 1977 Amer. Speech 1975 50 89 That this word [sc. Yoruba ofe] could have been brought to the United States by slaves is altogether possible... Thus ofay may be taken as a word said for self-protection in times of threat, which was then transferred to the source of threat, and so came to mean ‘whiteman’. 1992 Folk Roots Sept. 47/3 Let's not get into any ethno-political-socio-hoo-ha here 'cos it's so boring, mainly{em}this is entertainment: right, ofays?

Google hits for "ofay": 62,900. Google hits for "nigger": 4,450,000.

The fact that "ofay" has been lost leaves the vocabulary of disparagement even more lopsided than it already was.

(The play, by the way, is about Billie Holiday—Felicia Loud is a phenomenal performer, but the production has a weird racial-infrastructure problem you can read about here.)