Ajaat to zwazo

By Brendan de Caires

Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad and Tobago,
ed. Lise Winer
(McGill-Queen’s University Press, ISBN 978-0-7735-3406-3, 1039 pp

For lexicographers, words are History’s spoor. Rightly understood, they provide an insider’s view of the jostling cultures of the past. Consider, for instance, the provenance of many legal terms. In 1362, lamenting that French, the language of the English courts, was “much unknown” in the realm of King Edward III, the Statute of Pleading stipulated that “all Pleas which shall be pleaded in [any] Courts whatsoever . . . shall be pleaded, shewed, defended, answered, debated, and judged in the English Tongue.” But the statute itself was written in French, and it required that court records be kept in Latin. Consequently, modern legal language abounds with vestigial Latin (subpoena, affidavit, mens rea, locus standi, etc) and, courtesy of the French, we retain their words for attorney, bailiff, judge, jury, plaintiff, and petty larceny. Legal documents are littered with archaic doublets such as cease and desist, goods and chattels, keep and maintain, and will and testament. For, as with other historical events, between the legislative idea of the Statute and the workaday reality there lies a lexicographical shadow which can be measured quite accurately more than six centuries later.

Good dictionaries enable similar insights as to how a culture establishes itself through the hoarding of specific sounds as a response to the world. In the words of one eminent linguist, “borders between cultures become, potentially at least, sites of noise, confusion, pandemonium.” Seen in these terms, it is hardly surprising that the Caribbean, which has seethed with cultural noise and confusion for at least five hundred years, has proved such a rich environment for modern lexicography.

Lise Winer’s Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad and Tobago (DECTT) is the most comprehensive reference work ever published on Trinidadian speech (for the sake of simplicity, Trinidadian will be used throughout this review to refer to both Trinidad and Tobago), and a book that amply fulfils its stated purpose to be “useful and interesting to a wide range of readers.” In 1996, Oxford University Press published Richard Allsopp’s Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage (DCEU), a volume which considerably raised the level of reference material available to a general reader. But for all its scholarly encumbrances, the DCEU struck many readers as old-fashioned and somewhat donnish right from the start. Since then there has been a felt need for the speech of individual islands to receive the lexicographical respect which a long-term project like Allsopp’s bestows, but, to the best of my knowledge, no contemporary dictionary of West Indian creole rivals Winer’s in size, scope, and seriousness.

In her introduction, Winer notes that the DECTT has many more Trinidadian words than the DCEU, especially “historical, archaic, and obsolete words, words of Indian origin, words for flora and fauna, and locally salient domains such as games and steelpan.” Unlike the DCEU, which drew almost exclusively on printed sources, Winer has gathered citations from “written, recorded, and oral media,” and is commendably open-minded about recording “all relevant words . . . pleasant or not.” This inclusiveness allows the DECTT to avoid refereeing usage, and its generous citations let the words speak for themselves. That may look like a small point, but it has serious consequences, especially when it comes to the many taboo and obscene words which give West Indian speech so much of its distinctive flavour.

The DCEU — which classes words as “formal,” “ informal,” “anti-formal,” or “erroneous or disapproved” — describes one of the indispensable Jamaican cuss-words as:

rass-clate [ra:s-kla:t] n (Jmca) [AF-Cr/Vul] [Used only as an obscene expletive] A used sanitary napkin; a piece of cloth so used. “Big White Chief!” she exclaimed. “Is what de rass-clate yu doin’ frightenin’ people fo? Is wha’ ’appen to yu now?” —PCOS: 86 [from Orlando Patterson’s The Children of Sisyphus (1964)].

Now, this isn’t wrong in so far as it goes, but is rass really “considered perh the most vulgar of all CarA [Caribbean Area/Region] expressions, its use aloud in public is punishable by law in most territories”? Perhaps I move in different circles, but I feel duty-bound to make a case for the Jamaican bomba-claat, the Guyanese ’scunt, and the Trinidadian mother(’s)-cunt. At the very least, they deserve to be considered on an equal footing. By contrast, the DECTT is refreshingly plainspoken in these matters. The entry for totee/totay/totie (orthographically disambiguated from toti — a female parrot) cross references big bamboo, boutou, iron, lolo, toto, wood. Sadly, there isn’t a corresponding catholicity in the cross-references for female genitalia (which might have included the Tobagonian bat-bat, as well as bombo, keki, kweffen, kunkun, mookonks, pegs, pinky, pim, taylaylay, and tongue, and the more familiar nani, pum-pum, and punki). This level of exactitude in country matters may not be to everyone’s taste, but Winer’s open-eyed approach to language as it is actually used is central to what makes the DECTT so useful.

Winer’s citations make it easy to chart the semantic progress of a word, and this can afford the curious reader a pleasure all by itself. For the first time I noticed that several discrepancies between Guyanese and Trinidadian creole seemed to be due mostly to a generation gap. Trinidadians generally call the fried sugar and flour concoction that I grew up cracking teeth on kurma — but mithai, which is what we called it in Guyana, seems to have been commonly used in the 1970s. I was also glad to discover that bungo-tuffee (still common in Guyana, albeit with a narrower meaning) is recorded in Trinidad circa 1960, in a citation that helpfully compares it to buffooto and choof choof. The near-defunct washikong, a word I have scarcely heard since childhood, appears in citations ranging from 1919 to 2004.

Hindi-Bhojpuri terms are particularly well represented in the DECTT, and I was surprised at how few I recognised — undoubtedly a symptom of my expatriate middle-class indifference to and detachment from the wider society. Winer’s decision to cast her net widely here will prove invaluable to readers who wish to know more about such unfamiliar words as aadhaa-tihaa (adv. carelessly, sloppily), ajaat (n. a person dejected by society; a homeless person), charhay (the harmful effects of insect bites), dular (affection; snuggling; cuddling), ghachoo (a foolish person), howkay (to fan away insects), kulachan (a blighted person who brings others bad luck), kusanghat (unsuitable friends), jhanjhat (confusion; a noisy row; trouble; quarrel; fuss), and patay (to mould or make firm.) She even records the occasional humorous Hindification of English phrases, such as call it Lal (for call it George) and every Tom Dick and Harrilal.

Onomatopoeic words also abound in the DECTT, perhaps too often for purists. I don’t mind bam, bodow, bragadap, buhdoom, buduf, and budung-bung to describe the sounds of various impacts, but I harbour doubts about whether three entries are necessary for ploojunk/ploochunk/ploojung (“The sound of a heavy object falling into water”), ploonks (“the sound of a medium-sized object falling into water”), and plunks (“the sound of water drops falling heavily”), especially since all seem to rely on a single source. I also hesitate over the possibly specious specificity with which the Swiftian-looking bubbulitrups is glossed as “a jokey term for an advanced stage of TABANCA.” But these are quibbles. In my opinion, Winer correctly errs on the side of inclusiveness, and this allows her to capture such wonderful words as nyeng-nyeng (crybaby), which I intend to use when the next opportunity arises.

Unfamiliar lexemes have their charms, but for me the real joy of Trinidadian speech lies in its unexpected phrases. Here again, Winer has been commendably thorough, and she helpfully supplies the background that a non-Trinidadian might need to decipher Bata shoe in a Johnson’s box, play mas and fraid powder, fresh no bit a pung butter (“fr. red salt butter, which was sold for a bit (8 cents) in a wooden firkin keg and went rancid easily; fresh butter in a tin cost 12–15 cents but was much nicer”), more belly than a calabash (greedy), and the wonderfully strange eat like curry barb wire (to be in a foul temper). Her unfussy attitude to sources lets her gloss c and b there with a 1990 ad for a Sugar Aloes concert, although, somewhat disconcertingly, the phrase is deemed “archaic.”

Nearly every page provides historical tidbits like these, from the corrupting influence of the Americans (Jean and Dinah, Yankee password), to the consonant shifts and compressions of French Creole (jammet, jablesse, zwill, and zwazo — “having an odour like a bird, esp. a wet one”), and even the odd traces of dialect English (nashy). There is also a good deal of illuminating conjecture as to how other cultures may have coloured the meanings of phrases that look entirely English. For instance, does the use of nature for libido and virility (as in “cigarette smoking can cut your nature”) come from the Spanish natura (“genitals”) or naturaleza (“sexual desire”)? I’m not sure, but both suggestions are thought-provoking.

Winer’s long, meticulous entries for culturally central words like calypso and canboulay are so distinguished they could probably be siphoned off to form part of a West Indian version of Keywords, the Marxist critic Raymond Williams’s imperishable volume of cultural and political analysis. A quick browse through the entries for lavway, jab-jab, king sailor, Barbadian cooks, and Midnight Robber followed by a straight read-through of Carnival and its neighbouring phrases (Carnival baby | fever | mentality | Queen | season) creates a wonderful impressionistic portrait of Trinidad en mas, as it were, from the halcyon days of the Pierrot Grenades to fallen jump-and-wave gettings-on of our times.

In addition to generous funding and decades of painstaking scholarship, regional dictionaries, like worthy newspapers of record, require from their creators a commitment to a certain landscape, and respect for the people within it. (Winer, based at McGill University in Montreal, has been studying Trinidadian language for over thirty years; the DECTT was preceded in 2007 by her Badjohns, Bhaaji, and Banknote Blue: Essays on the Social History of Language in Trinidad and Tobago.) Winer’s volume meets this requirement in spades, for in addition to recording nearly all the linguistic quirks that would interest a lay reader, the DECTT also provides extensive information on Trinidad’s flora and fauna (including thirty pages of appendices which list Linnaean names for the most prominent species) and an exhaustive scholarly bibliography.

I have used it to quiz several Trinidadians, and while many were stumped by the harder entries, none was able to offer a word that was missing. After much sifting I realised that “jalitre” (a term used for two-litre plastic bottles of soda) isn’t there — a pity, since I’d like to settle the question of whether the word is a corruption of deux litres or an eponymous gesture towards the manufacturers S.M. Jaleel. Neither is “three canal,” a kind of cutlass with three grooves along its blade, from which the rapso group took its name. I also want to think that future editions of this fine dictionary will include “mampey” (despite its Jamaican origins), and possibly even the delightful back-formation “mampeelicious.” Tentatively, I’d also like to hazard a guess that the origins of push hand in fire may lie in the story of Gaius Mucius Scaevola, and may have entered common usage back when Trinidadian schoolboys still read Livy.

Weighing in at just over five pounds, and with the familiar fimbriated black slash of the national flag sloping proudly across its front cover, this handsome doorstopper arguably evokes the living reality of Trinidad in ways that bear comparison with the fiction of Antoni, Selvon, Lovelace, and V.S. Naipaul, and for my money it deserves to keep them company on the bookshelves of any self-respecting Trickidadian (a term that “can be negative or admiring”). With Christmas fast approaching, I am also certain that an electronic version of the DECTT could sell like hot bakes.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2010

Brendan de Caires was born in Guyana and now lives in Toronto. He has worked as an editor for various publishers, and written book reviews for Caribbean Beat, Kyk-Over-Al, the Stabroek News, and the Literary Review of Canada.