In an earlier post last year, I discussed 14 English Words & Phrases that Mean Something Totally Different in Jamaican Patois. This time, the patois lessons are about to get harder, as I share 50 words and phrases that — to the best of my knowledge — originated in Jamaica.
Some of these Jamaican Patois words and phrases are popular in some parts of the island, but not others. A few were used by our parents and grandparents, but are not frequently used by millennials. And others were invented in my lifetime, by fellow millennials, and continue to confuse our elders.
I divided the list into different parts of speech to make it easier for you to follow. As per usual, all patois words in the body of the article, will be written in italics. Now, let’s get started!
In Jamaican Patois, most of our language inventions are nouns. It helps that we have very colourful ways of describing people, places, and things we dislike — as you will see.
The word earthstrong is brought to us by a prominent religious and cultural group in Jamaica, the Rastafarians. It literally means “birthday”, and is especially used by men wishing their male friends or relatives a happy birthday. It is not as commonly said to women, or used by women.
Joe Grind (sometimes spelled as Joe Grine)
Joe Grind refers to the man on the side. He keeps a safe distance from the boyfriend or husband, but knows who they are. It may also be used to refer to a guy who has a reputation of being the man on the side, or who may be trying to Jim-Screechy (please see list of verbs) a woman away from her man.
A pretty dunce is the Jamaican equivalent of a dumb blonde. She’s very attractive, but doesn’t know the difference between there and dear, and can’t find Germany on a map.
Pickney is commonly used to refer to a child, in the same way Americans use the word “kid”.
Owing to our British roots, proper etiquette is very important in Jamaica. That means little things like saying please and thank you, greeting people when you meet them, and understanding boundaries in a home. Since this behaviour tends to depend on how a pickney was brought up, we inevitably refer to this as broughtupsy.
Maa-ma Man is often used to describe a man who deliberately refuses to take care of his responsibilities, due to laziness and lack of ambition. Below is another common meaning supplied by a fellow Jamaican.
Technically, Jamaicans can’t claim creative rights to this term, as it is the title of the first well-known porno flick in television history. However, in Jamaica, we use Blue Movie as a euphemism for pornographic movies. The term has been falling out of use, since most millennials now just say porn.
A sketel is a sexually promiscuous woman, usually with a reputation for loose morals, and often with gold-digging intentions. Her less commonly referred to male equivalent is a mantel.
A gyalis is the updated word millennials use in place of mantel. It refers to a guy who is smooth, and usually gets his way with the ladies. It doesn’t carry the negative connotation mantel does, but naturally, no respectable Jamaican woman is looking to settle down with a gyalis.
A butu is someone who lacks broughtupsy, and is stereotypically either from the ghetto or the countryside. According to Jamaican Patwah, a butu is:
A person who has little or no social graces or manners. Being a butu is completely independent of your social class. Professor Rex Nettleford once correctly said, “A butu in a Benz is still a butu.”
In college, many of us started to say butucrat for some ridiculous reason. As I explained back in 2013, to a follower who asked me about it:
Jamaicans refer to mildew and most other fungal growths — especially on cloth, floors, and walls — as junjo. One follower briefly explains below.
Growing up, I heard this word (pronounced one way or the other) used as a vague but serious insult you hurled at someone you seriously disliked.
As one Jamaican friend explained to me in a Facebook comment, “I usually use it to berate someone I believe to be uncouth or unbecoming”. He also specified that the term tends to be used more for men than women.
The same friend colourfully described batacrep for me in the following words:
To the uninitiated, ‘batacrep’ is in reference to [a] battered crep — ‘crep’ being the flat soled sneakers… The battered or ‘batta’ in that is referring to its state, [as] usually it is something people of that time would wear often until it was worn out, torn, and ripped, as they were expensive [to replace].
Naturally, being compared to a pair of worn out, dirty (once upon a time) white shoes is not a compliment.
A lot of foreign artistes use the term Bangarang in their music, and I’ve always wondered if they knew what it meant. Like its brother hataclaps, bangarang refers to a trouble or disturbance. This can either be a loud noise, or someone who is up to no good.
Hataclaps can be a bit more serious than a bangarang, and is more synonymous with a serious crisis. However, both words tend to be used interchangeably.
A mampy is a grossly obese person. While I’ve mostly heard it used to describe men, overweight women have had this term hurled at them as well.
Keep in mind that in Jamaican culture a woman with large breasts, wide hips, and a big butt is considered immensely attractive. So our standards of fat, overweight, and obese are a bit different.
Corouches usually refers to junk, but not always literally. For instance, a person travelling with a lot of bags may describe those bags as corouches. It can be an offensive way to refer to people’s things, so to keep the peace, it’s best used to jokingly refer to your own belongings.
As commonly happens, the word suss has made it into British slang, but they still use it much differently than we do. The British use it to mean realising or understanding something, but in Jamaica, suss refers to gossip and scandalous rumours.
This is one of those words that are so old and out of regular usage that my generation barely knows what it means. I have always heard it used to mean a loud commotion. Other guesses made by my Jamaican followers:
Due to a Jamaican song that carries the title, many people also claim it has an underlying sexual meaning.
While we’re on the topic of sex, I suppose now is as good a time as any to refer to male genitalia. Pengeleng refers to adult male genitalia, while teely usually refers to a small boy’s. If you want to insult a Jamaican man, ask him about his teely. These words are more often used by generations preceding millennials, and in rural areas.
A follower suggested this one with the hilarious tweet:
While it can mean stars, I’ve always thought it just meant tiny flashes of light — perfectly reasonable after you’ve been pimp-slapped by a parent for being out-of-order.
Growing up, chi-chi was initially used to refer to termites. Even the pile of dust they left behind after their foraging was called chi-chi dust.
But as I grew older, the word also became a derogatory term for homosexuals. This usage was made popular by the T.O.K. song Chi-Chi Man, encouraging locals to keep their distance from the LGBTQ community.
Brawta refers to getting something extra as a bonus. For instance, when I order a Boston Creme at Dunkin Donuts, and they toss an extra one in the bag for free, that’s my brawta!
Bunununus (sometimes spelled boonoonoonoos)
This is a word I heard often growing up, but wasn’t really sure what it meant. The confusion comes from the fact that my generation doesn’t use it very often.
According to the book, Rastafari and Other Caribbean Worldviews, “The word bunununus… which means nice, was often used to describe fat and attractive women.”
Dry Land Tourist
A Dry Land Tourist refers to a Jamaican who is stush and pretends to be a foreigner, by mimicking a foreign accent, especially around tourists. They have typically never left the island before, but want to be perceived as cultured and sophisticated.
If you think the nouns were colourful, the adjectives we come up with as Jamaicans could outdo a rainbow. Since many of our adjectives also double as nouns, you will find several more under the hybrid heading in this article.
From Mi Eye Deh a Mi Knee
This phrase literally translates in English to “since my eyes have been at my knees”. A more accurate translation would be, “since I was a young child”. This is similar to when an American says, “since I was yay high”.
If something is pyaaw-pyaaw, it’s weak and unappealing. Growing up, I heard this used to describe everything from porridge to people! 😂
Hot Like Wig
I never heard the term hot like wig, while living on the island. But one of my friends in Montego Bay told me the simile recently caught on. This one doesn’t require an explanation, does it?
Winjy is a form of measurement that typically means small, thin, or scanty. Jamaicans may use this to ask for a winjy piece of the muffin, or to describe the winjy little boy up the street. While this was commonly used as a child, I haven’t heard it as often, since adulthood.
Though winjy is falling out of use to describe petite body types, mawga is eternal. It comes from the word meagre, and is not a compliment. It is only used to refer to living things, and ranges from mawga dog to mawga gyal.
Mi Mout Nuh License Wid Church
One of my absolute favourites, you have to get to a certain age before you can say this in public and get away with it. You might want to get to adulthood before saying it within earshot of your parents, though.
It literally means, “My mouth is not licensed with a church”. This is a wonderful way to warn someone, that there is no limit to the atrocities that will come out of your mouth if they cross you, so they should tread lightly.
On Twitter, a feud almost broke out over which of these was the correct pronunciation.
A private account commented to say, “It’s ‘plakka plakka’ doe.” That sparked the debate over which one was correct.
If you’re a Jamaican and reading this post, I’d love to know which one of the pronunciations you’re familiar with. 🤔
A common feature of Jamaican Patois, is repetition to show emphasis. A classic example of this is the word foo-fool, because just saying someone is foolish once is simply not enough.
To be tallawah is to be brave and strong. However, the irony of this word is that you hear it most often when describing someone or something you wouldn’t expect to be strong.
For instance, a common phrase in Jamaica is mi likkle but mi tallawah, commonly said by people who are short, especially men. It means, I am small but I can accomplish big things. Don’t underestimate me. 💪
If something is chakka-chakka it is messy or disorganised. But, let me just say that the most common thing I ever heard described as chakka-chakka is people’s teeth. I know, I know. We’re terrible people. 😅
Similar to pyaaw-pyaaw, something that is fenke-fenke is weak. It can also refer to something that is winjy, since not everything little is tallawah.
Stush (sometimes spelled stoosh)
Someone described as stush, has an overwhelming amount of broughtupsy, and are no longer down-to-earth. They may perceive themselves as being above others, or may be unwilling to get their hands dirty, or work very hard. This is usually only used to refer to women. 💅
When it comes to verbs in Jamaican Patois, we are typically content to use the ones most Anglophones are familiar with, though we often change the meanings. However, there are still a few inventions we’ve made over the years.
To pree something is to watch it closely. It can also mean to reflect on something. For instance, a man might run into a Jamaican friend on the street who looks upset. When asked what’s wrong, the friend may reply that “him a pree” (he is contemplating) his situation.
To dash weh something is to throw it away. This can also be used to refer to an abortion, as Jamaicans may say she dash we di belly. This literally translates to, “she threw the belly away”.
Kin puppa lick
Every time I hear this phrase, I burst into laughter. I also remember that time I fell down a rocky incline in my grandmother’s yard. The memory sticks because when she told my parents what happened, kin puppa lick was the colourful way she described my unpleasant journey down the rocks. I will never forget that! 🤣
Unlike Joe Grind, Jim-Screechy is not a type of person; it’s something untrustworthy people do. If Paul Jim-Screechy the baby’s candy, he stole it. If he took the mother while he was at it, he Jim-Screechy her too. A burglar may also be seen “a Jim-screechy” (sneaking, or lurking) behind the house, trying to break in.
A wash belly typically refers to the youngest child, especially if that child is much younger than the rest of their siblings.
Exclamations tend to not have literal meanings, but as with any other language, the context in which they are used, may vary. Let’s look at some of these below.
Raatid (sometimes spelled rhaatid)
Sometimes synonymous with “My God!”, raatid is often said by someone who is surprised, impressed, or even frustrated. It can also be used to describe the size of thing. For instance, upon seeing a mansion, a Jamaican may describe it as a “raatid house”, meaning it’s really big.
This literally translates to “Do you see me?” Its more accurate meaning is, “Do you understand me?” It’s not a literal question, or a question at all for that matter. Men especially use it to punctuate long monologues with their friends, or to prompt some feedback from them in the affirmative.
This is most popular with millennials in their later 20s, like myself. I don’t hear it as much now, but from highschool into college it was commonly used, and often abbreviated as “Zn”, when texting.
It literally translates to Seen, a common phrase we all had written in our books when teachers looked at our assignments. It’s used to acknowledge that you have heard someone, or understand them. It does not necessarily mean you agree.
As a god!
If you haven’t noticed yet, Jamaicans are pretty confident people. There’s a reason the animal most associated with our culture is the lion. Naturally then, when we swear on the truth of something, rather than swear on God’s word, we swear as gods ourselves. As a god! is the ultimate informal oath that someone is telling the truth. Some super-religious Jamaicans consider it blasphemy.
Jamaican Patois is fluid, always changing, and words may have multiple meanings based on the context. As you will see below, some words may also be used as multiple parts of speech.
The word risto comes from the word aristocrat. A risto is someone who is stush, and perceives themselves as too good for certain people, activities, or things. This word is a hybrid because I could say the person is a risto (noun), or is being risto (adjective). Unlike stush, we use this to refer to both men and women.
Someone who is speakey-spokey may speak with a false twang, or tends to use proper English even in informal settings. This is a hybrid because I could use it to explain her actions as speakey-spokey (verb) or to describe the person as speakey-spokey (adjective).
As an adjective, wanga gut is synonymous with being greedy, or as we would say, craven. As a noun, we use wanga gut to refer to a big belly, especially one that swings and bounces, and is the result of gluttonous tendencies.
Genal (sometimes spelled ginnal)
The word genal can be used to describe someone who is dishonest, or can be used to refer to that dishonest person.
Hurry-come-up (sometimes spelled horry cumup)
A hurry-come-up is similar to what other English speakers may refer to as an upstart. In Jamaica, this is someone who is climbing the ranks, or trying to, and behaves in an arrogant way towards others. As one follower explained it:
The phrase is a hybrid, because you may also refer to the action of the person as they work to climb the ranks, as hurry-come-up.
While Shakespeare’s sodden-witted, three-inch fool, and poisonous bunch-backed toad are notorious, you just can’t beat batacrep face, big ol’ mampy, wanga gut — and other such atrocities that come from mouths unlicensed with the church.
Sorry Shakespeare. We win.
If you’re fascinated by Jamaican Patois, and would love to learn more about our language and culture, check out:
Thank you to the more than 3 dozen Jamaicans who contributed to this list. I started with a list of 10, and in less than 24 hours of requesting help on Twitter and Facebook, I had a list of 50. 😵
I try to do at least one Jamaican post per month, so if you would like to be a part of these queries, follow me on Twitter at @alexischateau_. I’m also always on the lookout for pictures of Jamaicans to use in these posts, so follow me on IG as @alexischateau_ to suggest your pictures to me.
For this post, I requested and received permission yet again from Jamaican world-traveller, Rouchelle Fountain. You can find her on Instagram as @rouchelle@2788, and be just as jealous as I am of her adventures!