By Anthony Deyal
There are very few days when the English Language does not speak to me in tongues and in Trinidad you will often hear the explanation for any issue that “Is tong say so”. Pronounced this way, “tong” is “Town” which is short for the capital city, “Port-of-Spain.”
There are other “tongs” that have nothing to do with Chinese secret societies although, in the old days, someone who saw a Fu Manchu movie in one of the Port-of-Spain cinemas would tell you that Trinidad had more tongs in tong than a Limehouse in London. Although “tongs” are tools used to grip something and lift it, little boys whose mothers heard them using swear words lived in fear of getting their “tongs” cut off. This is why I generally kept my mouth shut.
My latest close encounter with the English language came from Snooker star, Ronnie O’Sullivan. Defending a colleague who lost the prestigious English Open final, O’Sullivan explained, “It wasn’t a bottle thing.” Well, when most of us in the Caribbean hear “bottle” in connection with any sport, we either hide or run for our lives. Worse, in our part of the world, “bottle” and “stone” are a more dynamic duo than Batman and Robin, or The Lone Ranger and Tonto. As the calypsonian Sparrow sang in his early “Ten To One Is Murder”, “Bottle and stone and no place to shelter. I hear po-towh, powh, and the crowd start to scatter.”
There are people who would be shocked to hear that in the highest level of world snooker there would be a “bottle” issue. When I was a young man, sometimes during a dance or after a public event, we and our rival gangs would end the night with a few bottles thrown either in high spirits or high in spirits, but at a world championship?
I know that the English “bottle” is “a glass or plastic container with a narrow neck, used for storing drinks or other liquids.” But the word is not bottle-necked by that one meaning. O’Sullivan’s “bottle” was “the courage or confidence needed to do something difficult or dangerous.” In other words, it was not a lack of bottle that caused his colleague to lose the match.
And without the bottle that partners it, and even scare people with considerable bottle to seek cover before they get a hiding, “stone” on its own is just a “Hard Rock” without a Café. Stoned, though, and stoners are a different kettle of fix and examples of usage include, “Where is a stoners favourite place in a restaurant? In the high chair.”; “I tried being a stoner for the first time today. The person I threw the rock at didn’t appreciate it though.”; and, “What’s a stoners favourite Star Wars movie? The Hempire Strikes Back.”
The present has brought us many new English Language challenges that are gifts only to people like me who like to mess with it. A doghouse is a place for dogs but also for people, husbands especially, who are in trouble because they’ve forgotten their wives’ birthdays, Mother’s Day or worse. However, a cathouse is not the feline equivalent of the doghouse although a husband could be in the doghouse if he frequents a cathouse.
Worse, if he comes back home stoned, his relationship will undoubtedly hit rock bottom because his wife would not take that lying down, especially with him. There was a boy in our neighbourhood whose nickname was “Rock”. He got beaten often for playing football instead of helping to carry water from the standpipe to his home. Even then my love of English made me quip, whenever we saw his Mum coming with the stick, “She soon going to reach Rock-bottom.”
This is why the media usage of “Mum” is my favourite. One of my friends read, “Mottley stays mum on LIAT negotiations” and was stunned. “I didn’t know she had a child!” he exclaimed. Worse, a headline said, “DLP mum on its man or woman in St Phillip West” and he asked, “What kind of political orgy that party is up to? And who is the Mum doing that? She don’t have no shame.” Jamaica also has its Mum problems. One paper said, “PM mum as watchdog…” and another article claimed that not just the PM’s mum but the entire government “mum on confidence in board carryovers amid NLP scandal.”
Globally, this applies to many top government officials. Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, “remained mum on vaccine.” One mischievous member of my Canadian fan club laughingly wondered if it was a sex change. The worst of that bunch was Donald Trump who generally boasts about his masculinity and virility. However, on December 2020, an article not only accused Trump of causing Americans to dance backwards under a low bar but of bisexuality at best. The report read, “US families, economy, government in Limbo as Trump remains Mum on COVID-19 Aid Bill.” The question my US friends asked was whether Trump had an aid named Bill?
I have a lot of fun every day with Mums in Trinidad and have not yet been put out of our house or found myself in any belonging to a dog or cat. It started when one of my friends got really angry about the country’s politicians. He contended that we elected people to high office and not their mothers. He drew my attention to the headlines in the Trinidad Newspapers. “Look at this one,” he said. “Chairman Mum on PM’s talk of Port Corruption.”
He asked angrily, “What is she doing in that? How did she reach there?” He then drew my attention to another article, “Prime minister remains mum on FIFA soccer probe.” My friend was livid, “Are they trying to make our prime minister some kind of political football? How can he remain mum when he fathered so many children? You eh see is wicked they wicked, especially the papers. They out for him!”
I pointed out to him that even in previous regimes there were Mum problems. I’ve read articles like “Minister mum on sexual claim against government”, “Health Minister mum on resignation” and even one which said, “Gypsy mum on Pan Trinbago” and I thought that a man must really hate his mother to put her in Pan Trinbago. While writing this column there was one in a newspaper which takes me right back to where I started, in “tong”. A local paper reported “Attong mum on PSC nomination, UNC scrutiny.”
The real problem was when my friend Sheridan called and changing “scrutiny” into two words asked me who in the opposition party would be so endowed. I did not touch it but explained to him that in newspaper jargon “Mum” means “to keep quiet.” He had the last word. “Keep quiet? I don’t know any mum who ever keep quiet in her life.”
*Tony Deyal was last seen saying the media headline he likes most is, “Minister Turns Sod…” Even though “sod” means “dirt” it can express anger like “Sod off” or refer to a homosexual man.