Jamaicans have very colorful expressions that can sometimes leave people scratching their heads ― including other Jamaicans. Most of us who grew up on the island have had the experience of grandparents and teachers randomly dropping proverbial sayings as the “drop mic” end to a conversation.
Why say no when they can say:
Annuh everybody have luck fi carry goat cross river!
What does this and other common Jamaican slangs mean? I asked Jamaican Twitter to drop the best proverbs they’ve heard that had them laughing. Most people didn’t include explanations, so I enlisted my grandmother’s help to ensure I got the meanings right. I’ve also added some of what I learned from her while growing up in Jamaica.
1. Every mickle mek a muckle.
Literal English Translation: Every mickle makes a muckle.
Alternative: One one cocoa, full basket.
Literal English Translation of the Alternative: One and one cocoa makes a full basket.
I first decided to write this post after hearing this proverb for the first time in several years. What shocked me was that I didn’t hear it from Jamaicans. The words came from Scots in this form:
Many a mickle makes a muckle.
So, what does it mean? It means the same to all of us. If you put many small things together, it will add up to something notable or considerable.
Jamaicans might say this as a form of encouragement when someone explains that they are making slow but steady progress toward a goal. Did you find you can only save $50 monthly toward a big goal? Well, good for you! Every mickle mek a muckle!
2. Give laugh fi peas soup!
Literal English Translation: Give laughter for peas soup.
According to my grandma, this describes a situation where someone makes a joke out of a serious situation or fails to accept the gravity of a bad situation. For example, Jamaicans have a habit of laughing at and taunting hurricanes. We haven’t had a really bad one since Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. I wasn’t even born yet.
3. A nuh everybody have luck fi carry goat cross river!
Literal English Translation: Not everyone has the luck to take a goat across a river.
The first time I heard my grandmother say this, I was in primary (elementary) school and had to do a double take. I burst out laughing, but it was a warning. Grandparents often say this when you intend to do something they consider ill-advised. It means that someone else succeeding at something doesn’t mean you should try it too.
Thinking of dropping out of college because Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did it and became billionaires? Well, my grandmother would remind you that a nuh everybody have luck fi carry goat cross river!
4. Fowl cyah hear shoo, him wi hear pam!
Literal English Translation: If a fowl cannot hear shoo, he will hear pam.
Alternative: Who cyaah hear it ago feel it.
Literal English Translation for the Alternative: Who cannot hear it will feel it instead.
We all heard some form of this as children when misbehaving. Our grandparents would tell us not to do something ― like jumping on the bed ― and grandma would discover the disobedience. Suddenly, you would see her round the bend, and very calmly say, fowl cyaa hear shoo, him wi hear pam! It means that if you can’t obey words, then let’s see how you feel about the rod. If you hear these words, it’s a good idea to run. Fast.
5. Cyaah ketch Johnny, ketch him shut.
Literal English Translation: If you can’t catch Johnny, grab his shirt.
Let’s say you see Grandma coming with the belt after she caught you jumping on the bed. She already warned you that if you can’t hear discipline, you will feel it instead. You take off running at top speed to avoid the whooping you know is coming, but you leave your favorite toy behind. Grandma takes the toy and hides it. You return after she has calmed down, and then you realize the toy is missing. Grandma shrugs and tells you if you can’t ketch Johnny, ketch him shirt.
More commonly, though, Jamaicans say this for more serious matters. In the interest of keeping things lighthearted, I won’t go into details. I’m sure you can think of situations where someone might go after something or someone close to a person they can’t get back at for revenge.
6. If goat did know di size a him batty hole, him wouldn’t swallow mango seed.
Literal English Translation: If the goat knew the size of his butt-hole, he wouldn’t swallow the mango seed.
Alternative: Hang your basket where you can reach it.
Kim does an excellent job of explaining what this means. So, in what context would a Jamaican use this proverbial saying or the alternative? Let’s say that I just got a job as a young professional. I live 45 minutes away, and there are only a few buses, so I’ve decided to buy a car. My uncle has offered to sell me his reliable Toyota for a steal because he’s ready for an upgrade, but the bank will loan me enough money to buy that Audi I like so much. If I choose the Audi, I would cut it close to my monthly budget and need to cut back on other things, like paying off student loans.
I go to my parents for advice. They, naturally, will advise me to take my uncle’s offer and buy the reliable Toyota until I can truly afford something better. I know they’re right, but that Audi is really tempting, and I’m fighting hard to prove that maybe I can manage it. Mom realizes I am hell-bent and won’t be deterred with reason, so she says, If goat did know di size a him battyhole him wouldn’t swallow mango seed.
7. Wah sweet nanny goat, gway run him belly.
Literal English Translation: What is sweet to the nanny goat will give him diarrhea.
Nanny goat has a specific meaning in English, but that doesn’t really apply here. This is one of those many English words that just don’t mean the same thing in Jamaican Patois.
So, what does the saying mean? The things that bring you joy now may cause you pain later. It sounds deep and serious, but this one is often directed at children. For example, let’s say Johnny is jumping on the bed again. Grandma is in no mood to fuss but tells him to stop. He doesn’t, falls off the bed, and hurts himself. Grandma will calmly tell him, wah sweet nanny goat, gweh run him belly.
The way the person has it in the tweet is also correct. Grammar and syntax often vary across specific pockets of Jamaica. We are not as small an island as you might think!
8. Every hoe have dem stick a bush!
Literal English Translation: Every hoe has a stick in the bush.
According to my grandma, this means that everyone has a special person out there. It may sound sweet, but it’s not always said in an endearing fashion.
For example, imagine a person who has developed a reputation for promiscuity and mistreating their partners. Most people in the area know better than to date them by this point, but the person meets someone outside of the community and marries them.
This shocks the community but not the elderly people. They might shrug and say, Well! Every hoe have dem a stick a bush!
What proverbs or sayings would you like to share? Tell me about them in the comments. Sayings from all cultures are welcome!