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!

Who Will Save Barbados?

Submitted by William Skinner

We seem to be lurching from one issue or crisis to another. Whether it is garbage pilling up all over de place or teachers being assaulted by students, our beloved island state now seem rudderless and heading straight for the rocks. When we add an ill conceived, basically stupid, so called no confidence motion, apparently designed to get the Prime Minister to talk; a picture of utter confusion seems to have permanently infected the body politic.

The only person who seems to have a fairly level head these days is Mr. Grenville Phillips, whose recent appearance on the rapidly deteriorating brass tacks program was intelligent and enlightening. It was a departure from almost five years of one particular moderator, who has taken it upon himself to be the main antagonist of the Prime Minister. Repetitive and one-sided contributions, designed to futilely prove that there is some real difference of what we have, the DLP, and what we gine get, the BLP, unless apparently a miracle intervenes.

Mr. Phillips has undertaken the bold task of convincing the public that Mr. Owen Arthur is as much to blame as anybody else for the economic slide that is now taking us into financial ruin and possibly oblivion. Any Minister of Finance, who left the country with perhaps all the problems he had inherited, should not be elevated to God like status. Arthur has been given a lot of credit where none was due. There are shop keepers and those who only keep shop. The only real difference between Sinckler and Arthur might be the fact that Arthur can claim he is an economist by training. They are selling the same bread in different bread carts, the result will be the same. Drowning men will clutch at a straw; Mr. Arthur is the straw of choice at this moment.

The simple truth is that as we approach fifty years of nationhood, our country finds its infrastructure in danger of becoming shambled. These two parties should be praised for what they have done and we should not be afraid to remind them that things they should have done they left undone and things they should not have done they brazenly did. Two glaring examples should suffice: Who will invest over one hundred million in a cricket stadium to see the West Indies get beat and leave old mains in the ground leaking water? That will be our friends at Roebuck street. Who will invest nearly fifty million in an office building and leave old water mains in the ground? That will be our friends at George Street. Same difference.

So in steps Mr. Phillips with his Solutions for Barbados and like all third parties, he finds himself often coming up for oxygen. Very hard to hold ones breath because of the polluted waters that are the trade mark of the BLP and DLP. Only problem is that he honestly believes that only those who have successfully managed business for a period of time and have employed a certain number of people, should get the opportunity to run the country. He may be shocked to know that over the last fifty years or so we have had quite a number of such persons in parliament and look wuh happen.

My advice to Mr. Phillips is to exclude lawyers and economists and try everybody else, except Sinckler!

The Vernon Smith Vs Marcelle Smith & Family Affair, with Court Documents

Vernon Smith QC

Vernon Smith QC

The unfortunate death of Marcelle Smith who was the wife of retired headmaster of the Lodge School Aurelius Smith and who is the brother of Vernon Smith and Frederick ‘Sleepy Smith’ of the venerable Law Firm Smith and Smith has generate a distasteful public story.  Based on the documents attached we have a family feud which is fuelling serious allegations. In the interest of being balanced and transparent BU will post the attached documents to inform public discussion and leave the speculation to others.