14 English Words & Phrases that Mean Something TOTALLY Different in Jamaican Patois

Jamaica is one of the most famous countries in the world. Hands down.

We’ve had several athletes hold the titles of fastest men and women in the world. We brought you reggae and rap. Introduced you to jerked chicken and Red Stripe beer. Popularized dreadlocks. Became a haven for hippies from all around the world. And have some of the best beaches Mother Nature has to offer.

One of the things that stand out most in Jamaican culture is our accent, and by extension, our dialect. While not everyone has a stereotypical Jamaican accent (most Americans assume I’m from California), and we don’t all speak the dialect, those who do often land themselves in trouble with other Anglophones.

The trouble comes from the fact that many English words have a totally different meaning in Jamaican Patois. While all Jamaicans learn and speak Standard English in school, many have a hard time shaking the colloquial meanings we use in our creole.

This can create problems when writing essays, even up to the college level; and when communicating with non-Jamaicans at home and abroad. It also often causes a problem when foreigners pitch semantic wars with us; never understanding that just because it looks like English, and may even sound like English, doesn’t mean it is.

To better illustrate this, here are 14 everyday “English” words that don’t mean what you think they mean — unless of course, you’re Jamaican, too. To make this easier to follow, all Jamaican Patois uses of English words are italicized. 

1. Ignorant

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According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ignorant means “lacking knowledge, information, or awareness about a particular thing”. Oxford also notes that it can be used informally to describe someone who is rude or impolite.

If you followed the link, you will notice there is a third definition referred to as “West Indian”. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “West Indian” is the collective demonym for people who are of Caribbean ancestry.

Oxford states — and they are correct — that West Indians use the word ignorant to describe someone who is quick-tempered. In fact, in Jamaican Creole, we never use the word ignorant to mean someone is uniformed or lacking information.

2. Swarthy

The Oxford Dictionary explains that a swarthy person is someone who is dark-skinned. But if you told that to a Jamaican, you might be met with a blank stare and a cocked eyebrow.

Though the word has mostly fallen out of use with other Anglophones, it’s still commonly heard in Jamaica, especially in rural areas. I asked a few Jamaican friends to explain what comes to mind when they hear the word swarthy. 

  1. “Big and fat”
  2. “Super fat and sloppy looking”
  3. “Morbidly obese”

As a fun fact, we pronounce it as “swaa-ti”, and it’s usually said as an insult. This isn’t a casual description you toss in a friend’s direction.

3. Hush

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For most other Anglophones, to hush someone is to “make someone be quiet or stop talking”. When said as a command, it usually means “Be quiet” or in some extremes “Shut Up!” So naturally, hush is a very offensive response to almost anything, especially between two adults.

Or is it?

When I was collecting word-contributions from my friends, Shauna-Kay Hamilton shared a story most Jamaicans can relate to at some point in their lives: that awkward moment we tell a non-Jamaican, Hush!

“I used hush at work… And trust me I had to backpedal. My boss thought I was being rude,” she shared with me via a Facebook post. “It was bad… It was his wife that had cancer come back.”

The reason few Jamaicans would think twice about saying hush to a man lamenting his wife’s new onset of cancer is that in Jamaica hush is meant to console. It doesn’t mean that the person should be quiet.

It’s the informal equivalent of saying, “I’m so sorry” or “my condolences”. When said between two close friends or family members, it may be said as hush yaaw. The yaaw doesn’t really mean anything.  In Jamaican Patois, it’s just a sound or word we use to emphasize a point.

If we actually do want you to shut up, we might say Hush up! or Hush nuh!

4. Out of Order

We all know that bathrooms, buses, and even billboard signs can be out of order. But did you know that children can be out of order, too?

Americans are probably the most likely to be perplexed by this one, because in American English “out of order” typically means that something is out of working order, or not arranged in the correct sequence.

The British, however, come a step closer to how “out of order” is used in Jamaican Creole. In colloquial British English, it means, “(of a person or their behaviour) unacceptable or wrong”.

While the contexts are similar, in Jamaican Patois it’s typically used to mean someone is excessively rude, impolite, and generally does not follow instructions.

However, this almost exclusively applies to children. It’s a lot less common to hear adults refer to each other as out of order, unless of course, we’re being patronising.

5. Bright

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The adult equivalent of out of order would be bright. For regular English speakers, the word bright refers to intelligence, or an abundance of light. For Jamaicans, someone who is bright is rude, disrespectful, and likely needs a proper thrashing to set them straight.

In fact, often when referring to children, adults put the two terms together as bright and out of order.

6. Hard of Hearing

While we’re still on the topic of bad children, let’s toss in another favourite description in Jamaica: hard of hearing. The Oxford English dictionary describes hard of hearing as literally, “not able to hear well”.

But if a Jamaican describes their child as hard of hearing, what they really mean is that the child is extremely disobedient.

7. Bun

Moving on to something a bit more comical, let’s talk about bun. Bun has many meanings and comes in many forms around the world. But in almost any country, including Jamaica, bun is a type of pastry.

In Jamaican Patois, bun also has a second meaning. A common saying in Jamaica is that two things are sure in life: death and bun. That means that we will all die, and we will all be cheated on at some point. Yes, you read that correctly.

Bun is used as a noun. To give bun is to cheat, and to get bun is to be cheated on. Since eating our pastry-bun with cheese is an Easter tradition, this leads to several Easter-related jokes that are as inappropriate as they are hilarious. Bakery shops are also frequently used in puns regarding bun.

I have no idea how the word bun came to have that meaning. My guess is that the original word may have actually been “burn”, to describe the emotional pain, as Jamaicans often pronounce burn as bun. Basically, we butchered the British accent.

8. Whine & Wine

Continuining on a lighter note, let’s next discuss the word whine or wine. Both spellings are used in Jamaican Patois. Now, I’m pretty sure I don’t need to tell you that wine is made from fermented grapes, or that a whine is a “a long, high-pitched complaining cry”.

But I most certainly need to explain that in Jamaican Patois, whining refers to the way a woman moves her derriere while dancing. This tends to refer to a slow and more seductive movement, but can cover all tempos and styles.

If you’re wondering why I didn’t use a Jamaican for the video above, it’s a lot sexier when we do it… and that might not be appropriate for all viewers. She does a pretty good demonstration though! If you’re not interested in the tutorial, then skip to 2:05 – 2:26.

9. Salad

Since we’ve already mentioned wine, we might as well keep the food coming. Right? But while salad means the same as it does in any other part of the world, it has a second meaning in Jamaica.

As one of my Jamaican guy friends artfully explained, “Salad is when you kick the ball through another player’s legs in football.” And of course, by football, we mean actual football ie soccer.

10. Salt

Is there room for one more food reference? Yes? Then let’s discuss salt. Yes, salt. We all know what salt means and what it’s used for. It flavours the ocean and our food.

In America, it even flavours feelings. According to the Urban Dictionary, salty is “a word originating in Philadelphia generally meaning that you just got played, or are looking stupid, either because of something you did, or something that was done to you.”

Typically speaking, Jamaicans use salt as both a noun and the corresponding adjective. In other words, we don’t say “salty”. Too many syllables! The meaning is a lot different, as well, though the Americans aren’t too far off.

If a Jamaican describes you as salt then we mean you’re really unlucky. This may mean that bad things tend to happen to you, but it can also mean association with you causes bad things to happen to other people.

11. Par

When Sean Paul released “Get Busy” in the early 2000s, it was gold. An instant hit, Americans loved it even though they had no idea what he was saying.

The famous line goes, “Yo sexy ladies wa par with us/ Inna the car with us/ Them nah war with us.” I always thought by context, foreigners had picked up on what par meant, but now I realise that’s likely not the case.

Par has many meanings in English. It’s most common use is as part of the phrase “on par with”; meaning that something is equivalent or equal to something else, or on the same level. It is also frequently used as “up to par”; meaning that a person or thing meets the necessary requirements.

But in Jamaica, to par with someone is to spend time with them. More often than not, this refers to friends, rather than people in relationships, or to family members. Ready for another fun fact? Another word for friend in Jamaican Patois is parri. No surprise there, right?

12. Links

For a long time, outside of tech, link up was a phrase I only heard in Jamaican circles. It means what every other millennial around the world now uses it to mean ie to meet up and spend time together, or par. Gradually, it worked its way into British rap, and now it seems that the Americans have caught on.

What still remains a fairly Jamaican Patois saying though, is links. Just as you par with your parri, in Jamaica, you linkup with your links (sometimes called linkies). Links can also refer to beneficial connections in the professional world, and in the entertainment industry.

13. Rate

I might be boring a hole in the topic of friendship at this point, but rate is another friendly world in the Jamaican vernacular. According to the Oxford English dictionary, rate has a number of meanings.

In Standard English, rating can be used as a form of measurement, or to benchmark one thing against another. A rate can also refer to the speed at which something moves, or even how much you might pay a moving truck to move it for you.

In Jamaican Patois, rate means none of these things. If a Jamaican says they rate you, it means they respect and admire you. In other words, they rate you highly. If a man says it to woman, it can also be a closeted admission of “I like you”.

14. Box

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Aggressive, but often hilarious, box is one of those ageless Jamaican Patois slangs that have been passed down for generations. Most English-speakers will picture a square or rectangular box, or some container made of cardboard or even wood. You might even stretch your imagination to consider boxing something ie putting something in a box.

Jamaicans stretch their imaginations much farther with this one. To box someone in Jamaica means to slap them across the face. Culturally, Jamaican men and women alike will stand their ground, so this is one of those threats you might not want to make when visiting the island. Someone might box you over…

I started working on this article by posting the following question on my personal Facebook page:

JAMAICANS ONLY: What are some “English” words we use in patois that don’t mean the same thing in actual English?
Eg. We use “hush” as a way to console someone, but “hush” actually means “shut up” in English.

I had a list of more than 20 in just an hour. That said, there are many other examples worth sharing.

If you know a few from Jamaica or any other country with an English-based dialect, feel free to share them with me in the comments. Stories of miscommunication across any and all cultural lines are also welcome.

Alexis Chateau Black Cat

If you’re fascinated by Jamaica and would love to learn more, then I also recommend:

***Featured Image provided by Jamaican photographer, Darien Robertson. You can find him on Twitter as @Darius_Roberti

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194 Comments Add yours

    1. Thanks for dropping by!

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    2. You’re welcome. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

      ~ Alex

      Liked by 1 person

  1. That is totally awesome! You really showed how language can be different for everyone. I never thought about how words can be the same but hold different meaning from you’re from somewhere else than an English speaking country.

    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, thank you! To be clear though, Jamaica is an English-speaking country. We just have a dialect. The article is about the dialect, Jamaican creole or patois, in comparison to Standard English on the island and abroad.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sorry, I was triple tasking. Dialect. ^_^

        Like

  2. What an interesting post! You live in the US, if I understood correctly. Jamaica will have inhereted the English language being a British Colony. i suppose. Is there as far as this this topic goes a distinction between American and British English?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’m a Jamaican who lives in the United States. As far as English goes, Jamaica and everyone else speaks English based on British English. Only Americans speak American English, haha.

      The differences are many, but obviously not so many that we can’t understand each other. The biggest difference is in the spelling, and there are also some grammar and punctuation differences.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ahoy there matey! In me world salty means curmudgeonly. Sometimes it can be older in age. Sometimes it can mean the person has a “smart” i.e. “dirty” mouth i.e. uses a lot of slang. Or stubborn. Just think of grizzled old sailors on the high seas. I would love to have other Jamaican examples. This post was fun. Arrrrrr!
    x The Captain

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    1. Haha, thank you! There are many more. Maybe one day I’ll do a part 2!

      Like

  4. Anna says:

    Very interesting to read…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Cool! It’s fun to learn what American/English words mean in other cultures. But the cuss words in Jamaican tickled me when first explained to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha. I don’t think there’s really any explanation for how they came to be. Not that I’ve heard anyway.

      Like

      1. Well den massive an’ crew, ‘ear dis,… #IMHO claat is cloth, rass & bumbo refer to the butt, blood & pvssy stay the same. Back in the good-ole, pre-charmin, slavery days, “toiletries” were probably scraps of re-purposed clothing that would also be “recycled”,… and who, pray-tell, would have the enviable job of washing and replacing said poop/menstrual cycle wads of fabric in the Big House outhouse? Ding! The very same slave ancestors of 90-odd percent of the current Jamaican populace that might trace (i.e. verbally assault (#15 perhaps?)) yu up an tell yu bout yu whatsitnot if yu get bright and out-a-orda. If you can imagine being pelted with sh!tty clumps of toilet paper and used tampons/sanitary pads, then you’ll understood why hearing “ayy bwoy, move yu pvssy bumbo rass blood claat from bow yah” are very bad wuds indeed, lmao.

        That said, loved your article & I’ll check out some of your stories. Keep it up sistren.

        Like

      2. Thanks for sharing that Julian. I remember my mom talking about those cloth sanitary napkins still used even when she was a teen, by the older generation.

        But how did we end up making “bad words” out of that when no one else did? Jamaicans are something else! 😂

        And thank you! I look forward to insightful comments like this one!

        Like

  6. lucindablogs says:

    Aww, this reminded me of my Grandma saying “I’ll box your ears” meaning (I think) I’ll slap you round the back of the head if you do that again. Not that she ever did, the threat was enough to stop us in our tracks! Great post, really interesting to see how English has evolved!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Lucinda! That’s probably exactly what she meant. That’s what it sounds like to me. Where was your grandma from?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. lucindablogs says:

        Hey Alex! She was English, so maybe it’s a colonial thing. It’s a really old fashioned saying, I haven’t heard it in a long time.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That is hilarious! West Indian and British culture have a lot of similarities in language. After all, they contributed to a big part of our culture! Did you read the culture article, as well?

        Liked by 1 person

      3. lucindablogs says:

        Yes! It’s really interesting to see the influence of, for example, Indian culture on Jamaican culture being very similar to the influence of Indian culture on British culture. Where I live in the U.K. there’s a big West Indian presence – we’re the home of ska/two tone music (like a reggae/rock hybrid) with a strong anti racist message.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Ah, you mean rock steady! Bob Marley’s producers apparently fused reggae with rock to make it more “palatable” to non-Jamaican and non-Black audiences of that time era. But it’s taken on its own life since then.

        I didn’t know Indians had a strong influence on British culture, but I know us West Indians tend to leave our mark wherever we go, for better or worse! Haha.

        Thanks so much for dropping by Lucinda. I’m glad you enjoyed my cultural posts. ^_^ I’ll see if I can work up some more for later this year.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. lucindablogs says:

        Kind of – two tone is a British take on traditional ska/reggae/rocksteady mixed with punk. Bands like the Specials and the Selector were all made up of black West Indian immigrants and white British people that made something totally unique. Check out the song “ghost town”, it’s written about my city!

        Good to chat to you too, I’ll keep a look out for your other posts!

        Like

      6. I’ll have to look that up. Have you ever heard of Skindred? They’re a UK-based band that mixes reggae with heavy rock. The lead singer is allegedly my cousin, but I’ve never met them or anything. Big fan though! His patois is 100% authentic, which makes it really interesting against a rock backdrop.

        Liked by 1 person

      7. lucindablogs says:

        What, Benji Webbe is your cousin? Yes I love Skindred! That’s amazing. They were really popular here about 10 years ago. Wasn’t he in Dub War too? They’re another great band with a reggae/rock fusion.

        Liked by 1 person

      8. So a family member told me when I was a teen. He saw me watching a KORN video on MTV and said, “Oh you like rock music? Do you know so-and-so? They’re our cousins!”

        He didn’t even know their name. He was trying to describe them to me, and then they came on after KORN, and he said, “Oh, there they are!” He tried to explain which aunty one-million times removed I was connected to them through, but I lost the thread after 2 seconds lol

        Liked by 1 person

      9. lucindablogs says:

        Haha! That’s pretty cool. Also, Korn were the first metal band I got into 😊

        Liked by 1 person

      10. I think it was between Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park for me.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing!

      Like

    2. Thanks for sharing this!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Willow Croft says:

    Oh my goodness, who knows how many faux pas I committed while working for my service learning supervisor? *blush* *laugh*

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha. Which one of you is the Jamaican?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Willow Croft says:

        My former boss, via work study program.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Haha. Well, you’re speaking English so really the burden is on her to do the same! But the problem is, sometimes Jamaicans who speak Creole/Patois often, mix up the words. I hope she didn’t say anything you found offensive!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Willow Croft says:

        It was a he, and no, no language problems. And, as you probably know, people from outside of the U.S. speak better English (i.e. proper/formal) than most Americans. The only time I couldn’t understand somebody when they were speaking (in that state was someone whose Southern accent was so thick I couldn’t make out what they were saying–I had to ask one of the Indonesian guest workers to translate for me, after the fifth time I asked the customer to repeat themselves.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Haha, yes, you’re right. I have noticed that Anglophones from outside the U.S. are generally more articulate — especially from Europe.

        But I also do know that some Jamaicans never really real English quite right, at all. I doubt your boss would fall into that category though. The people who missed English in Jamaica, are the ones who fell outside the cracks of the system: dropouts, thugs, poverty-stricken rural folks etc.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Willow Croft says:

        Good point. Thank you. Maybe a universal standard…

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Willow Croft says:

        And, yes, he was very well-educated, established academic (and an academic’s “publish-or-perish” reputation)

        Liked by 1 person

      7. Jamaicans really place a big value on education. Of course, not everyone takes it seriously, but no one denies the value of it, even if it’s trade school as opposed to a traditional university.

        One of the things that’s been very hard for me to get used to in the States, is how flippant Americans are about education after high school. A college education (albeit ridiculously overpriced in the US) is treated as the route stupid sheep take, rather than A (not the, but a) path to enlightenment.

        I don’t understand that at all, and ultimately, I think that kind of mindset might be America’s undoing for the next generation. Genius is not born from ignorance =/

        The end result is that almost every college campus I’ve been to here, the students are foreigners and minorities… Immigrants aren’t taking jobs. Americans are pretty much handing them over O_0

        Liked by 1 person

      8. Willow Croft says:

        Exactly…re: immigrants and jobs. Education here is weird. I still have student loans that I haven’t been able to pay back…and I kinda feel like one of those “stupid sheep” because I went to school to increase my chances in the job market, and my teacher was like, halfway through the graduate degree, told me that it wouldn’t get me a job and that I was wasting my time. I struggled in school growing up, so getting a Masters was a big deal and here my teachers, generally speaking, barely gave me the time of day, including not showing up for meetings with me, and (one was) were telling me my degree was going to be a complete waste, which was disheartening to say the least. I am on the fence, because of the increasing standardization of the school system over actual learning.

        Liked by 1 person

      9. Well that’s why I pointed out it’s ridiculously over-priced here. The student loan debt crisis in America is terrible. Bernie was spot on with that. So many other first world countries have made education free, or at least affordable.

        In Jamaica, we don’t just get a degree to get a job though. Education is also a sign of status; and the more knowledgeable and articulate someone is, the more respected they are. That usually translates into the right connections and the right opportunities over times. Unfortunately, even then, the third world isn’t the land of opportunity, which is why I’m here.

        You’re not a stupid sheep for doing your degree. Your govt just has a crappy approach to education. Think of how much you’ve been exposed to that you might not have otherwise known. 😊

        When I was in college, my lecturers told us they weren’t teaching us to find jobs. They were teaching us to create them. They wanted us to be pioneers and entrepreneurs. Obviously, not everyone can go that route, but if corporate isn’t working for you (as it wasn’t for me), I think it’s worth trying if there’s something you’re really good at and really love to do. 😊

        Liked by 1 person

      10. Willow Croft says:

        I know…that’s (in a way) I have a beef with the standardized school system. In addition to the obvious, I think it needs a complete overhaul and it is way behind the times–I don’t think it serves the public anymore. I would love to visit Jamaica again (as something other than a kid on a family cruise *laugh*)

        Liked by 1 person

      11. I can understand that. Even Jamaica needs a bit of updating, BUT at the very least, we’re taught the truth.

        First world countries have an image to protect. If their kids knew what they had been up to for centuries, patriotism wouldn’t be as alive as it is now. For them, politics makes it better to bury the truth. In third world countries, we have no such concerns.

        Liked by 1 person

      12. Wow! He’s quite established! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      13. Willow Croft says:

        I know, right? It was both intimidating and an honour to work for somebody like it. It was like working for my architect father. *laugh*

        Liked by 1 person

      14. Haha. I know that feeling. So much unintended pressure, but it usually pushes us to accomplish far more than we originally thought we could. 🙂

        Like

      15. I thought I followed you all along! Probably from the company blog. Following you here too now 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      16. Willow Croft says:

        Thanks! Oh, I shared some tips re: more effective flea control methods on your instagram, (i think). Excuse all the typos there, I was sneezing like ten times in a row. *laugh*

        Liked by 1 person

      17. Haha. Fall allergies got you too? I was sick in all the videos you’ve seen. I’ve been sick for more than 2 weeks.

        Liked by 1 person

      18. Willow Croft says:

        You were probably following my Chaos Fairy blog.

        Liked by 1 person

      19. You’re right. I did. But I think I followed this one on the company account too.

        Liked by 1 person

      20. Willow Croft says:

        Talk to you next week re: consultation!

        Liked by 1 person

      21. Awesome! Can’t wait. 😊

        Like

      22. Willow Croft says:

        I still treasure the time he complimented a project I did for him, for one of his presentations…high praise, indeed! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      23. Aw, compliments from those we admire are always the best!

        Like

  8. babbitman says:

    Great list! Yes, “to box your ears” is a traditional British phrase and it’s how the sport of boxing got its name. Mind you, it’s the kind of thing my gran would have said, whereas my parents threatened me with “a clip round the earhole” if I was being naughty.
    On the football phrase, salad = nutmeg in the UK. No idea why. But it is easier to say that “he nutmegged him” than “he saladed him” 🙂

    Like

    1. Haha! I forgot about the sport of boxing. That’s probably exactly where it comes from, but box in patois isn’t a punch to the face. It’s usually an open-handed slap. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Jamaican specify the ears though.

      I also didn’t know about the nutmeg. All these food references! We don’t really use one-word-tenses in Creole, so salad is salad either way. Tense is usually denoted by stating the time reference ie yesterday, today, last night, tomorrow etc. Sometimes “a go” is used before the verb to denote future tense and “did [a]” is used to mean past tense. “a go sleep” for example, means “going to sleep” or “will sleep” or “will be sleeping”; while “did a sleep” means “was sleeping” or “did sleep” means slept. Grammar differs across different areas and classes though, but we all understand each other.

      Liked by 1 person

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