A Jamaican man walks through the shopping plaza with his wife and children on a busy Saturday afternoon. Out of nowhere comes a loud, piercing voice that seems to reverberate off the walls near him: "Yow Lippy! LIPPY!!! Backside, a you dat Lippy?”
The man pretends that he is not the one being called - not with THAT nickname and certainly not twenty years out of high school… And definitely not in public, with the family in tow. Finally, turning around, he looks carefully at the person calling to him. He vaguely remembers the face but the voice that continues to speak is unmistakable: “Lippy… how tings man? Bwoy, all ah now you nuh grow into dat lip yet, eh?”
And the humiliation continues.
“Woe be unto the youth that cannot live without his Wii” - Author Unknown
Remember the games we played as youngsters? Now the youngsters I’m referring to here are the generation of Jamaican kids (including myself) that grew up in the 70’s and 80’s. Before this era I wasn’t alive to comment and after this era I was totally hijacked by the video game phenomenon. Before the video games, however, I had another life. One where I built my toys and games from scratch; from the things that lay around the house, things that were meant to be discarded, or from the fruits of Mother Nature. Now, I look back at the ingenuity that went into these play-things and wonder, who first came up with each of them? Some of them are not unique to Jamaica, but for others you really have to think that only Jamaicans could come up with such inventions.
For the benefit of those who may not know these homemade Jamaican toys or for those who know them and remember them fondly, here's a list of some of them:
The French say “Merde!” the Spanish say “Madre de dios!” and Barbadians say “Cheese-on-bread!”. Every country/culture has distinctive expressions that are used to convey shock or surprise. Jamaicans are no different. Well… actually, I think we are different. My guess is that we have a greater number and wider variety of ways to express shock or surprise than anyone else in the world. The sheer number and unusualness of Jamaican exclamations would be sufficient for a Phd thesis. We won’t even get into the numerous exclamations that end with “claat”. Those would provide sufficient material for a year-long university course (Perhaps it could be called: “R.A.S.S. 101: Basic Studies in the use of Invective and Diatribe in the Jamaican Vernacular”?). The following is just a sample of the numerous exclamations found in the Jamaican vocabulary:
In the early 1970s Ernie Smith recorded a now legendary song called “Duppy or a gunman”. In that song he describes a romantic, late-night encounter between two young lovers which is brought to an abrupt end when something/someone sneaks up behind them and says in menacing tones: “Don’t move!” The response of the terrified young Casanova, who assumes the voice is that of a ghost or thief, is to instantly forget his sweetheart and immediately take flight. Apart from just being funny, however, the song tells us a little bit about the things that strike terror into the hearts of ordinary Jamaicans. But what else terrifies Jamaicans? This article takes a closer look at a few of the things that frighten a nation of people who take pride in the fact that they don’t scare easily.
Recent tests by chemists (apparently with lots of free time) on US currency in circulation, made the stunning revelation that over 95% of the money had traces of hard drugs affixed to it. As amazing as this fact is, it would not compare to what a similar analysis would reveal about Jamaican money – which is that every single dollar contains significant amounts of microscopic patty crumbs and the powdery flour residue from coco-bread (that same examination would also, I suppose, reveal similar quantities of that sugary substance from the Jamaican favourite, the bag juice, but that’s another article).
Jamaicans have a well-deserved reputation for being among the most volatile people in the world. Our contention, however, is that it’s really only very specific things that will trigger the fury of ordinary Jamaicans. If you avoid these “triggers” Jamaicans are some of the most loving and docile people on earth. (That one made me laugh too, when I wrote it). Anyway, here a few things that are guaranteed, as they say on the street, to “bring out the darkness” in Jamaicans:
There is a universally accepted adage which states that there is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving. Though this may be true, it certainly seems that in Jamaica nothing compares to the immense joy of receiving something of value absolutely free of cost – a phenomenon commonly referred to as ‘freenis’.
Jamaicans love freenis and we have mastered the art of putting ourselves in the position to be the beneficiaries of free stuff. Thus, we will immediately jump at an offer of a free ticket to a movie, concert or even a high school barbeque. Similarly, glimpsing free t-shirts or mugs being given away at a party will make some of us slice through a crowd, straight to the source with ninja-like dexterity. And some would even consider a free igloo set the deal maker when deciding to buy living room furniture!
What are the similarities between the things Jamaicans love and the things Jamaicans hate? Well, Jamaicans can be equally passionate, loud and utterly unreasonable about both. Having devoted a lot of attention to the things Jamaicans hold dear, we thought it was about time we looked at a few of the things Jamaicans hate…
Badmind: Badmind is a typically descriptive Jamaican term which generally refers to any kind of hatred, envy or ill-will. If the average Jamaican is to be believed, badmind is the source of 99% of all problems in their life. So if you’ve lost your job, it’s not because you came to work late a record 37 days in a row. It’s because your badmind supervisor hates you because you’re black and wants to stop your progress. If your husband leaves you for another woman it’s not because he was an unfaithful bastard with a roving eye. No, is because yuh badmind matey tief yuh good-good man.
Just for a second, imagine Santa’s big red bag of gifts in the form of a fibre drum. This I dare say is the true representation of a shipping barrel to many Jamaicans – it’s Christmas in a corrugated cardboard container! Indeed, the arrival of a barrel is often a joyous occasion no matter what time of year it comes, since it means that the cupboards will now be stocked and your old belongings upgraded.
The practice of packing and sending a barrel is a Jamaican tradition. It's a tradition that sometimes doesn’t end even when the intended recipient(s) in Jamaica feel that they are now well-off or that they could make better use of the money their relatives are spending to pack and ship that barrel. So, don’t even bother telling that uncle of yours not to send anymore barrels of tissue, rice, tin mackerel and that whole cow worth of bully beef, just because those items are sold in Jamaica. That would be plain ingratitude.
Jamaicans have always a been creative people. Witness our many contributions to the arts: In music we’ve given the world reggae, dancehall and ska. In literature we’ve produced Roger Mais, Claude McKay and Louise Bennett. In the visual arts, Edna Manley, Barrington Watson and Albert Huie. Sometimes, however, I wonder if all this unbridled creativity doesn’t need some “curbing”. So, for example, there’s the issue of made-up names…
More and more I’m noticing persons with names that seem to be, how do I put this politely, invented, concocted or just pulled out of thin air! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it should never happen (ok, I don’t think it should happen much) and I’m not saying the names are necessarily unattractive either. I’m just fascinated (ok, and a little disturbed too) by the thought processes behind some of these inventions. So, for example, one common approach seems to be to just add “ique” or “nique” to an existing name and, voila! The result is the likes of Sashanique, Veronique and Junique.
Psychiatrists tell us that in order to move on and let go of unpleasant memories we first have to confront those memories, no matter how uncomfortable that process makes us, and come to terms with them. If you believe that crap, take a deep breath, this could be painful...
Here’s a short list of things that Jamaicans once loved and have since had the good sense to get over:
Cash Plus: Ok, so the greasy ponytail and the jail record should’ve tipped me off. I got caught up like everybody else. Sue me!
In the beginning… there was the humble handshake. Polite, versatile and almost universal. Then, in the 1970’s there came the “gimme five”, where “cool” people greeted each other by slapping palms together, one on top of the other. This was soon followed by the “high-five” where persons slapped palms together high in the air. In the 80’s, came the enormously popular “boom fist” where folks knocked closed fists together, one on top of the other, or fist forward with the front of each fist facing the other. In the 90’s coming into the new millennium, however, we got a little carried away…
Is there a fruit more desired by Jamaicans than the mango? Think about it! For about seven or eight months of the year, Jamaicans eagerly anticipate mango season, thinking up all the ways they can acquire as many mangoes as they can. Some even cleverly plan visits to friends and relatives who have mango trees at their homes. On arrival, they carefully utter their greetings, knowing that the slightest slip of the tongue may reveal the real reason they’re there:
“Man… look how little Billy grow since las’ season…ahm…since las’ year, ah mean”.
I would love for someone to explain to me why Jamaicans so frequently “double-up” their words. Has anyone at the University taken the time to study this curious phenomenon? Its obvious that some examples of this occurrence are just English words that we’ve gotten into the habit of saying twice, perhaps for the sake of emphasis. (Perhaps its easier to simply double-up a word than to find additional words to help emphasize a point?) Or perhaps it's a part of a Jamaican penchant for deliberate over-exaggeration in our descriptions of even mundane things? Other words appear not to be English at all and perhaps may have been passed down to us by our African ancestors? Consider the following examples:
Batta batta: To survive or merely get by. E.g. “How yuh stay Ralston?”
“Bwoy Lenny, mi jus deh yah a batta batta inna di recession”
Bumpy-bumpy: Very bumpy. Covered in bumps. e.g. “Gweh! Yuh face bumpy-bumpy like jackfruit!”
Cabba-cabba: Uncivilised people. “Is when Parliament get so full of cabba-cabba?”
Chacka-chacka: Untidy. Disorganised.
Cyass-cyass: A noisy quarrell or controversy. (See Ray-ray) Studies have shown that the persons most likely to be involved in cyass-cyass are fool-fool, cabba-cabba people who enjoy the mix-up and ray-ray.
Deady-deady: Unexciting. Boring. Convetional Jamaican wisdom is that deady-deady relationships often lead to infidelity. e.g. “Leroy, mi tyad ah the deady-deady lovin. If yuh nuh careful yuh ah go find Joe Grind inna yuh life!”
Degeh-degeh: Singly. By itself.
Dibby-dibby: Not worthy of respect. A dibby-dibby girl is best avoided. A dibby-dibby, licky-licky girl should be shunned like the plague.
Dooguh-dooguh: Sexual intercourse. What’s popularly known today as “daggering”. (Popularly known in places where it hasn't been completely banned by the Broadcasting Commission, that is.)
Depending on the time of year or the context in which it is used, the expression, “Yuh get Bun?” can elicit a range of responses. You see, in Jamaica, there is the bun you love to receive, and the bun you hate to receive. One is the sweet, tasty, bread-like treat, consumed daily by Jamaicans and which is especially popular during Easter time. The other is the first step in what often ends up being a domestic crime scene.
Fervet Opus in Campis. The Utmost for the Highest. Fortis. These are the mottos of three Jamaican, all-boys, High Schools. Said mottos are burned into the consciousnesses of each and every boy who ever graduated from these schools over the numerous decades of their existence. Questioned some forty years later, that same boy (now man) can likely recite the motto in English and Latin, say it backwards and forward and regale you with the lewd/bastardised versions of said motto.
The above is just a tiny example of the profound impact made by these schools on their graduates and no doubt partly explains the fanatical loyalty of male graduates of Jamaican High Schools including Wolmers, Kingston College, Jamaica College, Calabar, St. Georges, Munro and Cornwall College. Their graduates ("old boys") display a devotion that would inspire envy in many a religious cult.
Every old boy can explain his loyalty to his school. He made lifelong friends there, he received an excellent education there, and, most importantly, his school is better than all others.
“Sell me two small fry chicken! One leg an’ thigh, curry gravy! One breas’ an’ wing, food an’ stew beef gravy! If you’ve never heard these or similar words then you’ve never ordered an authentic Jamaican lunch in an authentic Jamaican cook shop… and you have my sympathies. For the uninitiated, let me translate. What was being requested was two small fried chicken lunches, and instead of being accompanied with chicken gravy, one was to be smothered in curry chicken gravy and the other in stew beef gravy.
Fried Chicken with curry gravy?! You may be wondering what would motivate a person to place such a strange order. Well, the first thing you should know is that fried chicken, stew beef and curry goat/chicken are perennial lunch time favourites in any Jamaican restaurant/cook shop.
The second thing you should know is that Jamaicans firmly believe in maximising the value we get for every dollar. And we’re greedy.
Is there any doubt that Jamaicans love pepper? Jerk pork, pepper shrimp, Solomon gundy and even the humble beef patty; none are considered fit for consumption unless they are infused with liberal doses of pepper. For many Jamaicans living abroad, a trip home is considered a complete waste if they are not able to procure a few bottles of Grace Hot Sauce or Pickapeppa Sauce to take back to “farin”.
Consider the behaviour of the average Jamaican at dinner – and this includes the most humble home and sometimes even the poshest restaurant. More often than not, the meal will be liberally sprinkled with hot sauce even before we’ve tasted said meal to determine whether a little extra “fire” is needed.
“H’emphasise your H’s you h’ignorant h’ass!” – Author unknown
As much as I ‘ate to say so, h’it h’is h’an h’unfortunate h’and h’unavoidable fact that many Jamaicans h’often drop their haitches (H’s) and put them h’in places that they h’ought not to be.
While h’it is difficult to h’understand why this ‘abit h’is so common, it h’is, in fact, so prevalent h’it can almost be considered part of h’our ‘eritage. H’in fact, h’I ‘ave noticed that the ‘arder Jamaicans try to speak properly h’is the more they suffer from this h’affliction.
While this ‘abit h’is distressing, h’it is not ‘opeless. I h’am credibly h’advised that with speech therapy h’and patience this h’inclination can be h’eliminated.
A rough guesstimate, based on my own observance while in the tenth grade of high school, put the percentage of school fights caused by the utterance,“yuh madda” in the high 70’s. If the school principal back then had run a tally of reasons why disheveled, bleeding schoolboys were presented before him daily, surely the ‘drawing’ of the ‘madda cyaad’ would be at the top of the list.
Not just confined within Jamaican borders, the 'madda cyaad' is THE universal invitation to start a fight. In the United States, it’s often expressed in the black community as any insult beginning (or ending) with, “yo momma”. In the United Kingdom, I’m almost certain that the expression is “your mum” (they're a bit more proper you see!).
Jamaica is known the world over for its dancehall music and the innovative dance moves that accompany same, but it always amazes me how famous dances that only 3 or so people know how to do can become!
Let me explain… How many of the following dances have you heard of? Della Move, Water Pumping, Slide and Wine, Weed Man Skank, Butterfly, Mock the Dread, World Dance, Bogle, Armstrong, Tatty, the Urkel, Log On, Signal the Plane, Parachute, Pon di River Pon di Bank, Thunderclap, Chaplin, Willie Bounce, Nuh Linga, Gully Creeper. Ok, ok, so you’ve probably heard of many of them. Fine, but how many of them can you actually do? One? Maybe two? That’s what I thought.
I think most of us are aware of this phenomenon. You’re sitting in your car at a stoplight somewhere in the heart of the city. The light is red. All around you traffic is backed up in every direction. You’ve been sitting there long enough to know that pretty soon the light will turn gr… HOOOOOOOOONNNNNNNNNKKKKK!!!
The driver behind you (7 times out of ten he’s a taxi driver) has blown his horn with a vigor and ferocity that suggests that the driver has a personal and intense dislike for said horn... or you. You’re so startled that you lift your foot off the brake and start to apply to the gas… Except that the light hasn’t quite turned green yet. HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONNNNNNNNKKK!!! The horn is blown again. Louder and longer this time. You can vaguely hear a stream of curses coming from the general vicinity of the vehicle behind you.
I never quite understood the almost maniacal extent to which dominoes is played at every available moment in Jamaica. On any given night, in any given town, you can find, usually in front of a bar or corner shop, a group of men and sometimes women, silently seated around a sturdy looking table, with steely concentration etched on their faces, intermittently striking the top of said table with the excuse that they are playing this game.
We’ve all seen books, brochures and pamphlets promising to teach us how to “speak Jamaican”. Usually they offer a few hackneyed, sanitized expressions that even my grandmother no longer uses. Jamaican parlance, as spoken on the streets, on the buses and in school yards is vigorous, colourful and politically incorrect. It is expressive, blunt and used more often to wound than to uplift. We apologise in advance to those who will find that the list below demonstrates a strong vein of misogyny and homophobia in the average Jamaican BUT if you really want to speak like a native, forget the “how to” books, put aside your delicate sensibilities, and add the following words and phrases to your vocabulary:
Bad Mind: Ill will, hatred or envy. If the average Jamaican is to be believed, bad mind is the source of 99% of all problems in life.
Bait: A person unworthy of respect.
It’s a documented fact that a love of martial arts movies runs through black people’s veins. This stop-you-in-your-tracks type of visceral emotion is evidenced whenever a Jamaican, usually male, tries to walk past a television playing one of these movies. Certainly, because of this level of subconscious conditioning, many a Jamaican has bought into the stereotype which suggests never picking a fight with a person of Chinese extraction, or they just may just end up having a taste of the pavement.
Since the dawn of time, men have sought to win over the fairer sex through a variety of means: with dashing good looks, expensive gifts and, of course, through verbal persuasion. And if truth be told, history has shown that, very often, the prize has gone, not to the man with the gifts of gold but the man with the golden tongue! In Jamaica, where many of us men are deficient in the wealth and good looks departments, but are well endowed with “sweet mout”, the word “lyrics” has come to mean, not the words of a song, but the clever blandishments used by a man to win over his intended target.
Lyrics, not surprisingly, are beloved both by those being won over and those attempting to do the winning. The receiver loves Lyrics for for the lift it gives to the ego, and the giver loves Lyrics because the reward (the affections of a fair lady) far outweighs the effort (but not necessarily the creativity) expended.