By Tony Deyal
“What do fish mean in Jamaican?” This came from an online page “MotivationJob” which, took the time and space to tell me what “Jamaicans say a lot”. I immediately knew that the Jamaican “fish” could not be a limbless cold-blooded vertebrate animal with gills and fins living wholly in water. This was too simple an answer for two reasons.
In the first place, Jamaica got the first place for making the first English Language movie in history (“The Harder They Come”) that needed subtitles in the United States, Britain and the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean. In fact, it was much harder to understand what the actors were saying than what they were doing. The second was when I heard some Jamaicans in the hall of residence in the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Trinidad calling one of their fellow nationals “Pokey” which in Trinidad is slang for the female sexual organ. I eventually learnt that the young student was a farmer who had worked on a pig farm and “Pokey” was Jamaican for “Porky”.
In Trinidad, there is a freshwater fish called a “guabine’ (pronounced “wahbeen”) which has a large mouth and dog-like teeth that earned it the name “wolf-fish”. A calypsonian, Lord Inventor, in 1961 applied the term “wahbeen” to women of loose morals (dem wahbeen women we have so low, if a razor-blade fall dey go pass below), and The Mighty Sparrow later sang about “Wahbeen and grog (rum) and pan beating fine” being so much on his mind that he left New York every year to return to Charlotte Street in Port-of-Spain to enjoy his carnival especially on “Ash Wednesday”, the day after carnival.
Given that “Baxide!” supposedly means “Oh my god!” and “lick” means “hit” (and not “passing the tongue over something to taste it”), the Jamaican fish gave me neither a shark nor a shock. The explanation was, “Another seemingly innocent, but sexually charged word in Jamaican Patois, is fish. But unlike buddy, there is nothing ‘good’ associated with fish, as the word means ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’.” I also learnt that “B” in Jamaican slang means “backside” or “baxside” and was “used as a curse term”. This led me to wonder what the rest of the letters of the Jamaican alphabet stood for – definitely not “apple”, “dog” or even “cat” etc.
What got me into this fishy business was that I wanted to find out whether Jamaicans, like most other Caribbean people, pronounced the word “job” as “jab”. One of my Jamaican colleagues explained, “You have to have patience. A job can be a jab but a jab can also be a jab and a job can also be a job.” In other words, you need the patience of the biblical Job (pronounced “Jobe”) to understand them. As my friend Jimmy quipped, “These days the only place you can find a good job is in the Bible.”
As a youngster growing up in a little village in Central Trinidad, and going to an Anglican School, I had no problem with job, jab or Job. Everyone from the Leeward or Windward Islands, mainly Grenadians and Vincentians, as well as the people from India and their descendants, pronounced “job” as “jab”. Like our present COVID days, people were all looking for jabs, had one, lost one, did not want any, or were jabless through no fault of their own.
In those days too, “tear” meant “to pull or be pulled apart”, “to move very quickly”, “a hole in a piece of paper or cloth” or “a drop of salty liquid that flows from the eye, as a result of strong emotion, especially unhappiness or pain.” The word “gas” was “a substance in a form like air that is neither solid nor liquid” which was used in cars that were just becoming available in Trinidad for the much richer people only, and lamps or “gaslights” which, with candles and “torch-lights”, were for most us the only light sources available with which to do our homework.
Recently, in the days of COVID, the two names “tear” and “gas” were put together by police in a tearing hurry who, tearing through the Queen’s Park Savannah in Trinidad, without warning and without any subsequent tears of remorse or regret, even for those people engaged in a “prayer and reflect”, loosed three canisters of tear gas on all those gathered there, little children included.
You would think that the political leadership would have said “That tears it” and take immediate action to curtail the police and fire the “Acting” Commissioner for acting so stupidly. Unfortunately, they seem to have become even more blinded than the people who were the victims of the tear-gas attack. “What they need,” one of my Jamaican friends insisted, “is some on-the- jab training from one of our heavyweights like Trevor Burbick who would not only give them one jab but a ‘jab-jab’ and then a knockout punch.” What he did not know is that in Trinidad a “jab-jab” is a character in the annual carnival who depicts the plantation overseer armed with a whip which was used on the slaves and Indentured immigrants. In fact, for a very long time the persons overseeing the workers were known as “Drivers”!
Despite the appalling memory the “whip” has for all of us, the parliaments of the Caribbean are still following the pattern and in the footsteps of the British. Each party has a “whip” or enforcer whose task it is to ensure party discipline and guarantee that their colleagues attend all voting sessions and vote according to their party’s official policy. Hearing legislators refer to parliament as the “House”, I would subject all of them to some house training especially in manners, respect and telling the truth, as well as drop some whips on them for not realising that those who forget or ignore history are doomed to repeat it.
I would not mind becoming a whip in any of the parliaments of the region so that I could deal with those members who deserve a hiding for hiding behind their posts and positions and using them for their own enrichment or that of their friends and family. It is better than wondering whether to be a writer specialising in Caribbean politics or to go to jail for whipping a big shot minister. That takes up too much time weighing the prose and cons. I am not like the lumberjack who cut down 82,546 big trees. He knew the exact number because he kept a log. Ideally, I would like to have Bill Gates as my boss. He said he chooses a lazy person to do a hard job because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it. What Bill doesn’t know is that only a few of the prime ministers in the Caribbean or their hand-picked cabinets need Gates to work that out for them.
What I feel should not happen in any regional democracy is for these same prime ministers to take away the rights of anyone especially those people who do not infringe upon, or threaten, the rights of anyone else. If I were a prime minister, or the leader of the opposition, my members, supporters and I would be out on the road every day trying to convince my fellow nationals to take the vaccines. That is the only way we can move from threats of job loss, jail, tear gas and gun talk to achieve what Lewis Carroll in Alice In Wonderland calls “Jabberwocky”, which is a combination of “gallop” and “triumphant” and means “to march on exultantly…”.
*Tony Deyal was last seen saying that a pin has as much head as some prime ministers and a good deal more point.