A carnival of words: Caribbean English in the OED September 2021 update

A carnival of words: Caribbean English in the OED September 2021 update

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage, a landmark work of World English lexicography that continues to be the most authoritative historical record of the rich and colourful vocabulary of one of the world’s most diverse Anglophone regions. In the past quarter of a century, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary have counted on the expertise of fellow lexicographers in the DCEU when researching and editing words from the Caribbean. We were fortunate to receive the advice and support of the DCEU’s late Chief Editor, Prof Richard Allsopp, and today, we are grateful to be able to continue this collaboration with Dr Jeannette Allsopp, founder of the Richard and Jeannette Allsopp Centre for Caribbean Lexicography, who has worked closely with us on an ambitious project to revise and expand our coverage of Caribbean English, the results of which can now be viewed as part of the OED’s September 2021 update.

The OED’s Caribbean English project covers the same geographical area as the DCEU—the region stretching from Guyana in South America through to the English-speaking islands of the Caribbean to the Bahamas and further to Belize in Central America. This encompasses words characteristic of the most widely spoken and most studied Caribbean varieties of English such as Jamaican, Trinidadian, Guyanese, Barbadian, and Bahamian English, but also words unique to smaller islands such as Antigua, Dominica, and St Vincent and the Grenadines. It also includes words that are used throughout the whole region.

The project involved revising over 120 unrevised Caribbean entries in the OED and adding more than a hundred new entries. In revising existing Caribbean entries and drafting new ones, we made use of the latest research on Caribbean English, as well as historical dictionaries such as the DCEU, the 1980 second edition of the Dictionary of Jamaican English edited by Frederic G. Cassidy and R. B. Le Page, the Dictionary of Bahamian English, both the original 1982 edition compiled by Dr John Holm and Dr Alison Watt, and the expanded online edition; and the 2009 Dictionary of the English and Creole of Trinidad and Tobago, edited by Prof Lise Winer, who is also the OED’s consultant for Trinidad and Tobago English. We found these dictionaries as well as the Digital Library of the Caribbean to be invaluable sources of historical evidence.

In the past, OED editors have often out of necessity relied on limited sources for quotations illustrating distinctive regional language. Over-reliance on travel writing or journalism can create an incomplete picture of a word’s usage, but the new and revised Caribbean entries in this OED update are illustrated by quotations taken from a wider range of Caribbean sources than ever before, from colonial administrative documents to historical newspapers to lyrics of calypso, soca, and hip-hop songs to Twitter posts by Caribbean English speakers. The OED also added to its Reading Programme some of the most important works by such Caribbean authors as Margaret Cezair-Thompson, Beryl Gilroy, Lewis Henry, Merle Hodge, Jamaica Kincaid, Earl Lovelace, Kei Miller, and Marlene Nourbese Philip. Several quotations added to the OED’s quotations database through the reading of these books have now become part of some of the Caribbean entries in this batch.

Included in the current update are new and revised entries for nominal and adjectival uses of Caribbean ethnonyms, both formal (e.g., Antiguan, Antillean, Barbadian, Barbudan, Dominican, Grenadian, Guadelopean, Guyanese, Jamaican, Kittitian, St Lucian, Tobagonian, Tortolan, Trinidadian, Vincentian, Virgin Islander) and informal (e.g., Baje, Bajie, and Bim as nicknames for Barbadians, Trini for Trinidadians). We have also revised existing entries for names of indigenous Caribbean peoples and their languages—Arawak, Arawakan, Taino, Wai Wai, Wapishana, and Warao, and added a new entry for Lokono. In addition, we have fully revised our entry for Caribbean English, and added individual entries for the major Caribbean varieties of English: Antiguan English, Bahamian English, Barbadian English, Dominican English, Guyanese English, Jamaican English, and Trinidadian English.

This latest batch features new and updated entries relating to Caribbean food, whether names for food and drink enjoyed throughout the region or those enjoyed especially in specific countries, such as:

  • bammy, n. (first attested 1852) – in Jamaican cookery: a round flatbread made from cassava flour.
  • casiri, n. (1796) – an alcoholic drink of fermented cassava juice and sweet potato traditionally made by indigenous peoples of Guyana and Suriname.
  • hard-dough bread, n. (1911) – a type of dense white bread, typically rectangular in shape and with a slightly sweet flavour.
  • Hopping (or Hoppin’) John, n.(1838) – a dish typically consisting of black-eyed peas, rice, onion, and bacon or pork; in the Bahamas and in some parts of the United States this dish is traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day to bring good luck.
  • jug jug, n. (1877) – a Barbadian dish traditionally eaten at Christmas, consisting of pigeon peas cooked with minced or chopped meat and Guinea-corn flour or a similar thickening agent.
  • mannish water, n. (1968) – in Jamaican cookery: a thick soup made with goat offal and other ingredients such as yams, potatoes, green bananas, and dumplings, typically served at social gatherings and popularly believed to have aphrodisiac properties.
  • pelau, n. (1907) – in Caribbean cookery: a spicy dish of French Creole origin consisting of meat (typically chicken), rice, and pigeon peas.
  • sancocho, n. (1851) – in the Caribbean and Latin America: a thick soup or stew typically consisting of meat, tubers, and vegetables.
  • snowball, n. (1894) – shaved or chipped ice flavoured with brightly-coloured syrup; also used in the United States and Bermuda.
  • tie-teeth, n. (1879) – in Jamaica: a kind of confectionery consisting of sugar which has been boiled to a sticky, chewy consistency.
  • tum tum, n.3(1790)– now chiefly in Tobago: a dish made from plantain, yam, or other starchy fruits or vegetables, cooked and pounded into a paste.

Also among this set of newly revised entries are those for words referring to elements of Caribbean folklore, such as gris-gris ‘a charm or amulet in the form of a piece of paper inscribed with text and placed inside a pouch or bag’, jumbie ‘the ghost or spirit of a dead person, esp. a malevolent one’, kanaima ‘a spirit, or person possessed by a spirit, who causes sickness or death as an act of vengeance’, soucouyant ‘a person, typically an old woman, believed to shed his or her skin at night and travel in the form of a ball of fire, and to suck the blood of victims while they sleep’. These are some of the oldest Caribbean words recorded by the OED, with gris-gris dating back to 1696, jumbie to 1764, kanaima to 1825, and soucouyant to 1887.

The Caribbean is known for its spectacular carnivals as well as its vibrant and influential music scene, so it is no surprise that words related to music, dance, and partying figure so prominently in this Caribbean update. Existing OED entries for musical genres originating in the Caribbean—calypso (1900), soca (1973), chutney soca (1987), dub (1973), ska (1964), and zouk (1986)have all been fully revised. New entries have also been added for words signifying Caribbean dance moves. To wind or to wine is to move the waist or hips in a circling motion when walking or dancing, a usage that goes back all the way to 1790. A more recent expression with a similar meaning is to wuk or to wuk up, which began as an alteration of the verb to work. Another new entry is for the Jamaican dance move dutty wine, which involves vigorously and rhythmically rotating the neck while gyrating the hips and moving the legs in a butterfly motion. This word, which combines dutty, the Caribbean variant of dirty, with the aforementioned wine, first appears in and was widely popularized by a 2006 song by Jamaican dancehall artist Tony Matterhorn whose lyrics encouraged everyone to “do di dutty wine” and “do di dutty wuk”. Also newly updated is the OED entry for a word particularly associated with carnival—jump-up, a party or celebration characterized by lively dancing. But alas, after the jump-up is the comedown, as the conclusion of all the wukking and wining brings along tabanca (1968), the name that Trinidadians have given to the longing and melancholy they feel after the end of carnival.

The Caribbean has long been a meeting point of different cultures, and this is reflected in the many languages that have influenced Caribbean English vocabulary. Loanwords in the Caribbean English lexicon come from African languages such as Kongo (e.g., bobol (1907) ‘fraudulent activity’), Yoruba (e.g., susu (1919) ‘an informal cooperative savings scheme or club’, from èsúsú) and Akan languages (e.g., bassa-bassa (1957) ‘trouble, commotion; a noisy altercation; a fight’). Caribbean English has also borrowed words from European languages such as Spanish (e.g., brata (1888) ‘an extra amount or small gift added to a purchase by a seller’, from barata ‘cheap’; mamaguy (1939) ‘to try to deceive or mislead someone’, from mamar gallo ‘to tease’) and South Asian languages such as Hindi (e.g., dhantal (1947) ‘a percussion instrument’; and Urdu (e.g., tassa (1948) ‘a bowl-shaped goatskin drum’, from ṭāsa). The Caribbean English word store has also been enriched by borrowings from the region’s pidgins, creoles, and indigenous languages, such as French Creole (e.g., comess in St Vincent ‘gossip, idle chat’ (1970), in the rest of the Caribbean ‘confusion or commotion’ (1944)); and Cariban languages (e.g., corial (1796) ‘a round-bottomed canoe with pointed ends’).

Caribbean English is characterized by variant spellings of words that represent the way they are typically pronounced in the region. Several of these are also included in this update, such as cyah (1974) and cyan (1866) for ‘cannot’, disya (1845) for ‘this here’, fi for ‘for’, gwan (1892) for ‘go on’, haffi (1942) for ‘have to’, and wagwan for ‘what’s going on?’.

Finally, this update contains a number of other creative lexical innovations that lend a distinctive Caribbean character to this batch of new and revised material. To catch/ketch one’s arse (1956) is to suffer or undergo misfortune, hardship, or difficulty; a catch-arse (1970) is therefore a bad time, and something described as catch-arse (1983) is unpleasant or difficult. To fingle (1907) is to handle something with the fingers; to sheg (1943) is to provoke or annoy someone; to be like peas (1959) is to be in large quantities.

To lime (1941) means to socialize informally or hang out. This is probably a back-formation from the word limey, which was used in the Caribbean to denote white foreigners generally; this usage could be a reference to the behaviour of American soldiers stationed in Trinidad during the Second World War. The noun lime began to be used a few years later (1956) to mean an informal social gathering. To eat parrot head or to eat parrot bottom (1965) is to be excessively talkative. The new OED entry for this phrase cites Guyanese-born author Pauline Melville’s 1997 first novel, The Ventriloquist’s Tale, in which people used to wearily say of one character, ‘He must have eaten parrot-bottom’, whenever they heard his non-stop chatter.

Steups (1952) is an onomatopoeic representation of a very typical Caribbean reaction—sucking air and saliva through the teeth to express contempt, disapproval, or annoyance. To make such a sound is to suck or to kiss one’s teeth, and kiss my teeth is now such a widespread expression of disdain that it is often abbreviated to simply kmt on social media, as in this exasperated tweet quoted by the OED entry: ‘Sometimes ah jus seh ‘cha’ an kiss mi teet. Kmt’. There has even been some campaigning online for a steups emoji to be created. This has not happened yet, but at least steups and kissing teeth are covered in both the DCEU and the OED—forever a part of the Caribbean’s lasting legacy on the English lexicon.

Special thanks to the OED’s consultants, Dr Jeannette Allsopp of the University of the West Indies Cave Hill and Prof Lise Winer of McGill University for lending their expertise to the dictionary’s Caribbean coverage, and to Mrs Grace Haynes of the Barbados Library Service for her help in tracing references for this batch of Caribbean English entries.

Objects telling the history of the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage on display at an exhibition held at the University of the West Indies in Cave Hill, Barbados, in celebration of the dictionary’s 25th anniversary

New Caribbean English words added to the OED in the September 2021 update

New Caribbean English subentries added to the OED in the September 2021 update

New Caribbean English senses added to the OED in the September 2021 update

Newly revised Caribbean English entries in the September 2021 update

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