When trying to explain Jamaican Patois to foreigners, I often tried to show that even though we use words that look like English, the word could be misleading, because it meant something else in Jamaican Patois. But when they asked for an example, half the time I drew blanks, and the other half, I only remembered the word ignorant.
As a writer, when these things happen, the remedy is always to write a post about it. So, after a year of toying with different ideas and concepts, and getting contributions from Jamaican friends all around the world, I finally published:
The post went viral within the Jamaican diaspora all around the world. Jamaicans living in Jamaica. Jamaicans who migrated. And even the children and grand-children of Jamaicans, who heard their parents use the 14 words I listed.
The support from the Jamaican diaspora on my blog and on social media has been overwhelming! And though a few trolls stopped by, hoping to have 10-seconds in the limelight, most of the response have been overwhelmingly positive. So much so, that here is part two by exceptionally popular request.
Me cyaah t’ank unnuh enough! But see di res’ a dem yah! Comment wid di one dem mi leff off again, and maybe me wi’ mek paat t’ree! 🤔
To make this easier to follow, all Jamaican Patois uses of English words are italicized.
1. Big Woman
For most English-users, when they picture a big woman, a large woman comes to mind. This has led to colloquial expressions like BBW, meaning Big Beautiful Women.
According to the Urban Dictionary, BBWs are women “who are overweight and still feel deserving of love because they realize that they don’t have to live up to certain standards that society has set in order to be pretty”. Even so, few women enjoy being referred to as big, regardless of their size.
Except, maybe in Jamaica. One Jamaican teacher in the U.S. shared her experience with me in the comments of the first article. Her experience is the best illustration for how big is used in Jamaican Patois.
As a Jamaican teacher in America. I got into “big” trouble. A student was being … rude, acting grown. And me go say “you a big woman”… [S]he start cry saying I called her big. Would take no explanation for an answer.
Mama came to school… I was now in bigger trouble. Principal summoned me to the office. I was saved by the bell. Another Jamaican was called in to verify what I was saying is true.
While grown is a grammatically correct synonym for big, as it alludes to someone’s weight, big is not often used in this way by other English-speakers. As this Jamaican’s story shows, the difference in the everyday usage can still land you in BIG trouble! 😂
2. Carry & Bring
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to carry someone or something is to transport, conduct, or move it from one place to another. This typically implies that something is physically lifted and moved to a new location. Trains carry people to work. Parents carry toddlers in their arms.
But in Jamaica, adults often carry other adults all over the place. We carry them to work. We carry them to a party. We even carry them to the beach.
Before you think we just have superhuman strength, here’s the more plausible explanation: Jamaicans use carry in place of the word take. As a Jamaican by the name of Ava, explained on the first post:
In Jamaica we may say, “I am going to carry my mother to the doctor”. A British person may wrongly assume she can not walk. It just means we are taking her to the doctor.
3. Look For
Most Anglophones only look for things and people that are missing, or not easily found. They look for a missing foot of socks, their lost pets, and the meaning to life. But there is nothing as horrific to most Anglophones as having to look for a friend or family member.
Unless of course, you’re Jamaican. Considered an island paradise by many foreigners around the world, high rates of crime and violence on the island is perhaps one of our best kept secrets. Yet… this isn’t why we’re always looking for each other.
As Khadene explained in a comment on the first article:
…I remembered while studying in the U.S. I told a church sister I was “going to look for” my sister in Canada. Her response with a puzzled and slightly worried face, “is she lost?” LOL, I had to think quick and say, “oh no no, i’m going to visit her.”
So if a Jamaican tells you he’s coming by soon to look for you, don’t worry. It’s not a threat. You’re not about to go missing. He’s just paying you a friendly visit. Promise!
As a tropical island, it goes without saying that Jamaica is a very warm country. We literally only have two seasons: dry and wet. So naturally, jackets are not one of those items you would expect to see often in Jamaican. And yet, we have many!
What we refer to as jackets, however, are not the items of clothing you throw on when it gets chilly. We’re referring to a group of people. As Natricha explained on the previous patois post, “One great word to add to this list is jacket…giving a man a child that is not his!”
Marcy Hainsworth further explains by saying:
[In] English it means a coat. The translation is not a polite term but it was one used when someone suspected the parentage of a child. American equivalent would be something on the lines of “Mommies Baby, Daddies Maybe”.
Needless to say, this is not a word you throw around lightly in Jamaica. It’s probably the most insulting accusation a man could make regarding his child, and the child’s mother.
5. Blouse and Skirt
Since we’re already on the topic of “Jamaican Clothes”, we may as well keep it coming with blouse and skirt. Most Anglophones would recognise blouse and skirt as a cute summer outfit for women.
Jamaicans are well aware of this, but when the older generation says blouse and skirt, it’s a form of swearing. This is not equivalent with the F-word, or other hardcore swear words. Think more along the lines of “What the hell!” or “Oh my God!”
Other popular swearing in this category that you might find amusing are rhaatid, roosta peck, and mi backside. The older generation was very creative with their “polite” exclamations. The younger generation tends to be more direct.
In 1969, Tootsie Pop presented the childhood mystery of the century, “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?” While Anglophones in most other countries may continue to grapple with the question, Jamaicans already know the answer.
We’re pretty sure if we lick that Tootsie Pop hard enough it will split open, right through the middle. In Jamaican Patois, lick is still used the way it was eons ago, when English-speakers used it to refer to a thrashing or beating.
As Lukey explained in a comment:
Lick in English refers to the act of passing the tongue over something for eg … “the cow licks the salt”. “LICK” in patois also means that. But is mostly used as “to hit very hard”
Since not many English-speakers use lick in this way anymore, imagine the look on an American man’s face when his very angry Jamaican wife tells him she is going to lick him over, or lick him good and proper!
Likely not the kind of misunderstanding that leads to healthy marriages…
There are many different meanings for the word raw, even in English. Raw can refer to uncooked meat or eggs; or anything still in its natural state, like fabric. It can also refer to a red, painful bruise on the body, or strong emotions. Americans even use it to refer to coarse lyrics in music.
But for Jamaicans, raw is a smell — and a bad one at that. Raw is usually used to describe the scent of eggs, uncooked or spoiling fish, or even blood. Naturally, telling someone they smell like uncooked fish is not a compliment.
A second meaning for raw that is allegedly common in Kingston (I never heard it myself), is hungry. One reader, Fitz-Roy Pinnock, pointed out:
It is also interesting to note that in addition to its use in describing the scent of fish, eggs, or even blood the word “raw” when used in Jamaica also means hungry.
This was confirmed by another reader, Hope, who said:
I’m from Kingston and I’ve heard the guys in my class or at the bus stop using ‘raw’ in that way. For example “jah know me raw, me coulda eat a fowl yah now”.
A third reader, Marcy, added:
We used “Raw” in Red Hills to mean hungry. “Me raw, mek we run a boat” Yep a “Boat” A simple hot meal Our fav was hot rice, or dumplings with a salty meat like bully beef, Tin Mackerel, or salt fish, scallion, onions, peppers and tomatoes (if available.)
Another unexpected word that denotes a bad smell is green. This might be surprising to most other Anglophones, as virtually almost anywhere else, being green is a good thing!
After all, green energy saves the environment. It stopped eSurance from chopping down trees, when such a thing as email exists. It encouraged Google to switch to solar energy. Prompted Pepsi to redesign its manufacturing processes to conserve water.
But in Jamaica, green refers to the smell of body odour from poor personal hygiene. As one Jamaican commented on the first article:
How about the word green? As in “Yu arm Green!!”? In this usage its [sic] not just a colour but a smell :).
When I moved to America, one of the things that blew my mind was how few showers Americans took — especially men. Americans I knew would just roll out of bed, throw on their clothes, and head to work or school.
In hot, humid, Jamaica, it’s expected that you shower when you wake up in the morning, especially if you’re going to work or school. It is also expected that you take a shower before bed.
And if you’re going out in-between that, then we typically take yet another shower. Failure to do so, and the subsequent detection of your body odour in the tropical heat, will prompt someone telling you that your armpits smell green.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, usually means, “Under normal conditions; generally.” Unless, of course, you’re Jamaican. While Jamaican Patois speakers, do use usually in the English way, more often than not, usually is used to denote the past.
A reader, Lavinia Marriott McClure, pointed out:
Usually = used to. How could you miss that one? I watched an episode of The People’s Court where a Jamaican was totally misunderstood by the judge and got a raw deal as a result.
Of all the suggestions from the previous article, this was the best one. I’m sure even Jamaicans who mostly speak English, like myself, have misused usually when speaking to other Anglophones.
While we’re already on the topic of time, let’s move on to the word, forward. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, forward is primarily used to mean, “In the direction that one is facing or travelling; towards the front.”
In Jamaican Patois, forward is used in a slightly different way. Ann commented on the first blog post to explain:
…also used to say I’m leaving, as in “mi a forward.” Used similarly to “mi a leggo.”
In other words, millennials often use forward, in Jamaican Patois, to mean they’re leaving an area, or they’re on their way to another one. Typically pronounced as faa-wud, Jamaicans forward to parties, school, the beach, and everywhere in-between.
There’s an old Jamaican Calypso song with the lyrics:
Byron: So wha’ you want?
Females: A good friend!
Byron: What you want?
Females: A real good friend!
Byron: What you want?!
Females: A real good man-friend!
Byron: Ohhhh… you need a buddy!
Females: That’s right!
Byron: Well, I totally agree with all o’ you.
‘Cause every woman deserve a good buddy
Every woman should have a good buddy!
The lyrics would appear perfectly innocent to most other English speakers, but Jamaicans would immediately catch the pun. Buddy, in Jamaican Patois, and our culture in general, refers to male genitalia. So if every woman deserves a good buddy, well… now you know what Byron is hinting at.
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. Though this is gradually changing, Jamaica is an extremely homophobic country, so to be called a fish, especially in public, is a serious insult for men.
Women from the LGBTQ spectrum, are not usually referred to as fish. The term is almost exclusively reserved for men who are perceived as effeminate, or as having a sexual interest in other men.
In most English-speaking countries, the average guy wants people to think of him as funny, especially women. From class-clowns, to comedians, or the guy who assures you he knows how to make a woman laugh, being funny and having a sense of humor (especially with a touch of sarcasm) is perceived as a good thing. Right?
But if you ever dare walk up to a Jamaican man and tell him he’s funny, things might not go over so well for you. Like fish, funny is another euphemism in Jamaican Patois for the word gay or homosexual. Unlike fish, however, funny is often applied to both men and women, and can cover the entire LGBTQ spectrum.
According to the Oxford English dictionary, low means, “Of less than average height from top to bottom or to the top from the ground.” But in Jamaican Patois, low is not a measurement or a description of any sort.
It’s a command, and one usually said in anger. Thus, if a Jamaican says, Low me! or Low it!, it means you should leave them alone, or leave it alone. To do otherwise, will likely result in unpleasant repercussions.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, someone who is craven is “Contemptibly lacking in courage; cowardly.” If you’ve read the Game of Thrones books, or watched the TV series, then this is likely a word you came across often.
Sam, for instance, was often described as craven, and looked down upon by other defenders of the wall. In Jamaican Patois, Sam would still be considered craven, but for an entirely different reason. For us, craven means someone is greedy, and eats too much.
In fact, I didn’t know craven had another meaning, until adulthood. And I have no idea how the meaning was changed to what it is, in Jamaican Patois.
Usually viewed as a bad thing by most other English-speakers, gimmicks is one of the things I miss most about living in Jamaica. According to the Oxford English dictionary, gimmicks refers to, “a trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or trade.”
However, in Jamaica, gimmicks is a joke — usually a crude one. Kids and teenagers spend a good deal of our lunchtime in school throwing witty comebacks at each other, called gimmicks. Some were just bullies, but for the rest of us, it was all innocent fun and jokes.
The end result is that though Jamaicans are often ignorant (quick-tempered), we don’t take easy offence to mere words. We live in a culture where, generally speaking, crude honesty is appreciated, and polite lies are considered not just dishonest, but cowardly.
In short, after years of gimmicksing each other in school — even if we were one of the unfortunate ones who were always on the receiving end — we tend to build pretty tough skins by adulthood. This probably explains our generally upbeat culture, in spite of the hardships we face as a Third World or developing nation.
Patois was first created within the Black Jamaican community as an effective and efficient means for slaves, and later free Blacks, to communicate with Whites, and each other. Contrary to popular opinion, not all African countries, or even tribes within those countries, speak the same language.
Because of this, many English words were altered, mispronounced, or had the meanings changed, as the Blacks applied the very little education they had to make sense of the foreign languages around them.
As indentured labourers from Ireland, China, India, and even Germany, later joined the mix, Jamaican Patois further evolved over the years into the unique dialect it is today. It is perhaps the strongest unifying cultural identity of the Jamaican diaspora.
If you’re fascinated by Jamaican culture and would love to learn more, then I also recommend:
- 5 Great Things you Can only Enjoy in Jamaica
- The 6 Main Ethnic Groups that Created Jamaican Culture
- 14 English Words & Phrases that Mean Something TOTALLY Different in Jamaican Patois
All pictures used in this article are of Jamaica and Jamaicans, and were provided by Jamaican architect, amateur photographer, and one of my best friends, John Samuels II. You can find on Instagram as @jms_ii.