The Jeff Cumberbatch Column – My Mother’s Tongue
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!