The Jeff Cumberbatch Column – My Mother’s Tongue

Jeff Cumberbatch - Columnist, Barbados Advocate

Jeff Cumberbatch – Columnist, Barbados Advocate

She shuffled off this mortal coil early one morning in July more than sixteen years ago now, but she has lived on in my heart for every hour since. Frequently, I seem to catch, in my mind’s ear, her voice calling my familiar childhood name and her wise counsel has been my constant guide throughout the years since she left us. I refer to my dear departed mother; she who did not consider it too great a burden, despite our relatively limited means, to indulge my early childhood obsession with writing and who would purchase for me every morning, as I recall it, a sharpened pencil [or “black-lead” as we termed it back then], to permit me, suitably furnished with a scrap of shop wrapping paper, to lie on the floor and to scrawl my infantile “potters and skinners” to my heart’s content.

I attributed it to serendipity therefore that the first of my numerous newspaper columns under the identical title of today’s effort was published on her birthday some 20 years ago in another section of the press. It was almost as if her love and generosity of spirit during my infancy was a harbinger of my current weekend pastime.

Today’s column is one that I had planned on creating for some years now and today, on the virtual eve of our 50th anniversary of Independence, is as appropriate an occasion as any for its subject matter, since it deals with an aspect of “Barbadiana” that was one part of my childhood experience, but which, I fear, may be lost on modern generations.

Here, I propose to treat some of the expressions I recall being used by my mother that are no longer heard in local conversation, but which, nevertheless, once adorned the language. As a caveat, I must state that some of their meanings I am unable to verify, although the tone of their utterance would have served adequately to convey their accompanying intent.

I have always assumed that many of these expressions were owed to the fact that my mother had been raised by her aunt who, as I recall, was born somewhere in the last quarter of the 19th century. All that I recall of her now is that she was named Iola, also one of my mother’s names; was fair-skinned, constantly sat in a rocking chair by the window in the “front house”; and owned such exotic (to me) pieces of a furniture as an ottoman and a four-poster bed. I also recall that she taught me to count by having me sing with her a song that started in a rather low register, gradually crescendoed into the twenties, and then tapered off in a sing-song rhythm for the thirties and forties.

So while I cannot offer a cognate modern expression for “Licky-Lacky spell Dutch”; that seemed more like a fatalistic cri de coeur than anything else, I am prepared to assert that a claim to living on “Li’l Dick pasture” and to shopping at the “Wee-Wee store” were merely self-deprecatory expressions of knowing one’s place or not hanging one’s hat higher than one could possibly reach!

To arrive home out of breath was to invite a favourable comparison with Joe Heath’s mare (Heath being pronounced in the Trinidadian way of ellipsing the final “h” –therefore Heat’]. In his seminal 1986 publication, “Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage”, Allsopp notes that this expression is also known as “like Joe Heap mare”, is of Barbadian origin and suggests “exerting oneself noticeably or behaving in an over-excited, busy manner”.

A crowd of noisy children was often referred to collectively and inoffensively as “li’l nayga” while what we today call “conkies”, I often heard her refer to as “stew dumplings”.

Amy mashed food was “coo-coo”, hence there was “green-banana coo-coo” and “split-pea coo-coo” on our menu in addition to the traditional fare of cornmeal and breadfruit coo-coos.

Adjectives and verbs were onomatopoeic at least, even if unrecognizable in today’s lingua franca. It has been many years since I have heard the expression “bonnyclobber” that my mother often used to describe the process when milk curdles in tea, although a Google search informs me that the expression is Gaelic in origin and is a compound or portmanteau of two words in that language: –“bainne” -which means “milk” and clábair –“sour milk”. In its modern English use as a verb and pronounced “bonnyclabber”, it means to “curdle”. Allsopp does not annotate it, however.

Colourful self–explanatory adjectives such as “fart-frighten(ed)” and “poor-rakey”, the latter having been most recently reprised by former Prime Minister Arthur to describe the 2008-2013 Lower House of Parliament, were used freely and for many years I associated the neck skin of a chicken with abject poverty because in my mind I had collapsed her idiomatic expression, “next-kin to nothing” as “neck-skin to nothing”.

Most memorable, however, was the description of any male passerby dressed to the nines for an occasion such as a wedding or funeral. This was likely to invite a comment in verse of “Choke ‘e; collar, Hang ‘e’ tie, Trip ‘e up, stockings, throw ‘e, down boots”. The description of some of the clothing by itself –collar, stockings -suggests the etiology of this quatrain.

Into the subset of misunderstood expressions, I also have to place “a neighth” which I thought was spelt “a nafe” and described any small amount, never thinking that it was simply my misapprehension of the phrase “an eighth” (1/8).

As the nation enters the last few hours before it celebrates the 50th anniversary of the moment it became a sovereign nation, I want to wish Barbados and all Barbadians at home or abroad, especially those who read my weekly effort, a joyful jubilee and bountiful blessings during the next 50!


  • Jeff wandering down nostalgia avenue with a homage to his dear departed mother and aunt shouldn’t draw negative comments (we hope)

    My favourite Bajan expression is “sky-lark” which is absent from Allsop’s book (how could he miss that?) I think Conkie (Blue- draws in Jamaica) probably has some relation to the Ghanaian kenkey . Allsop’s book is one of the more valuable literary resources to come out of the Caribbean.


  • “an homage”


  • Thoroughly enjoyed this article many of these expressions i heard as a child how about bruggadown bajan expression widely use meaning to fall where did that originate and is this a word closely connected to another language
    it would be interesting to hear more from the older adults that frequent BU


  • Bruggadown is the noise one makes while falling heavily to the ground,especially when toting a load of dead wood, or noisy vessels . Ably demonstrated by this administration on its way to 2018.


  • Bernard Codrington.

    Very nostalgic indeed. Are you sure that your aunt did not originate from my neck of the woods in St. John? Many of those sayings seem to have an Irish origin.
    ” Licky lacky spells Dutch ” was a favourite saying of my father who would have heard it from his grandfather who was responsible for his nurturing. He added to that “and TRW means tear up trousers” . We interpreted that to mean ” I say no more . A word to the wise is sufficient”. Any breach of the warning would result in a flogging. Or so we thought. Hence the torn up trousers.


  • Thanks for reminding me of the second half of that dictum, Mr Codrington. I recall that now> Given coloring, perhaps my great aunt did have some Irish lineage.


  • The one I remember is….sweet skin buckie…..referred to a non manual labourer as I interpreted it.


  • Colonel Buggy November 27, 2016 at 2:03 PM #

    i know an old horse like you would know what bruggadown means LOL which reminds me of the last bruggadown between Mottley and OSA when He dropped kick her botsy all the way to the ground
    BTW Colonel you were right on track until you brought your political licky de lick into the forum
    But why did i even bother to answer yuh poor rakey comment


  • Another one i remeber is behind Gods back.i belive that was in reference to people living in the country


  • AC

    I know as a town man we used to say that people who came from St. John came from behind God back.


  • AC
    I think the phrase she or he comes from behind God’s back referenced the backwardness of the country people in those days.


  • Dompey maybe Colonel can give his political spin on that one that is after he consult one of his feathered fowl brethern in the yardfowlbridgade.

    How about dooflicky. I belive Colonel would know that one too


  • Thanks Jeff.

    Had some banana coo-coo today with gently steamed marlin, and with some carrots and cucumber on the side. i like ground food any day of the week. No Sunday food for for me.

    Will make some stew dumplings on Wednesday morning.


  • What is coo-coo? Seriously, is that the sound made by the bird that lives in the clock?

    Wunna never get a hard slap cross wunna backside wid a prized cou-cou stick dah iz de problum. Mussee doan even noh wuh is millcut or hardslip!


  • All uh wunna like wunna iz Yankees


  • Awesome writer !!!


  • Shiite man Jeff…
    Bushie just had to check to see if we had the same mother yuh….
    You almost described the best mother who ever lived …..down ‘to the tee…’

    …only difference is that Bushie’s mum’s favourite saying was….
    “You wait til yuh fardah get home….”


  • Bernard Codrington.

    @ Bush Tea at 8:07 AM

    Your Mum did not flog you because she did not want to be the big bad wolf. I bet your father saw through this and did not flog you either.


  • @ Bernard
    Boss, Bushie’s mother flogged him every damn day it seemed … multiple times on occasion….
    It seemed like a family tradition….

    The threat about ‘waiting until yuh fahduh get home’…’ was simply her strategy to ensure the necessary compliance to the flogging ….from the bush boy, who was by that time, much bigger than she was…

    Ya think Bushie was an idiot …to have chosen to wait…. ? 🙂
    Wuh um is Bushie, …not Dompey we talking bout….


  • Another old Bajan saying . “Ya running rung like a blue a** fly” . … If you do not know this one, this is what the Prime Minister has been doing in the last few days, and especially today.


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