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 (pronounced patwa). 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.
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.
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.
- “Big and fat”
- “Super fat and sloppy looking”
- “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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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”.
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.
If you’re fascinated by Jamaica and would love to learn more, then I also recommend: