Carolyn Cooper, Contributor
Jamaican bad words have a quite respectable pedigree. They usually refer to perfectly good female body parts and functions. But the language of these bad words is often of African origin. So it's almost impossible for some of us to fully appreciate the explosive power of a big, fat bad word. It's positive energy, not just negative. But we can't see that. We're still trapped in damning stereotypes about our culture.
Instead of dismissing our earthy bad words as signs of the devaluation of women, I take a different point of view. Jamaican bad words that refer to female genitalia and the bloody specifics of menstruation are signs of the potency of female sexuality. I think it's this woman-power that is summoned in the act of voicing the so-called bad word. It's an acknowledgement of the role of women as mothers.
The familiar greeting 'mumi', which is regularly given by Jamaican men even to women who are clearly their junior, is also evidence of respect for women as nurturers - both maternal and erotic. The 'belly' from which the child comes, and to which the man returns frequently to come and come again, demands loving attention. In the words of Shabba Ranks: "Yu spend nine months inna belly an yu ha fi go back."
In a letter to the editor, published on Tuesday, August 13 and headlined 'Possible source of the B-word', Mr James Drummond-Hay proposes a divine origin for one of our most notorious 'bad' words, bmb: "I read Carolyn Cooper's article 'Sexual falsehood from top to bottom' in The Sunday Gleaner dated August 11, 2013. According to the Boshongo people of Central Africa, in the beginning, there was only darkness, water and a great god. One day, the god vomited and the sun appeared. He vomited again and the moon appeared, as did the stars and animals, including man/woman. The god's name is Bumba."
Mr Drummond-Hays argues, "In the Christian world, people are always saying, 'Oh, God!' or 'For God's sake', so in the same vein, the Boshongo people may say, 'Oh, B!' or some such other phrase. To me, anyway, this appears a more likely source of the word bumc, and hence the usage. It would be useful, though, to prove that some people in Jamaica may have had their original roots in Central Africa and, therefore, brought the word with them."
I completely understand Mr Drummond-Hays' caution about following me down a path that leads to a secular conception of 'bmb." But his purely spiritual speculation perfectly converges with my much more sexualised intuition. Procreation is a divine act. The god Bumba creates man and woman, including their most private parts. And Bumba appears to have named the female pudenda after himself. Or could it be that Bumba was female and the body part is named in her honour?
The Dictionary of Jamaican English defines 'bmb' as "[t]he female pudend." The Latin word 'pudenda' means "that of which one ought to be ashamed". In this definition, sexuality is conceived as essentially shameful. By contrast, the brazen use of female bad words in Jamaican popular culture shamelessly asserts the pleasures of the body.
The irreverent reggae singer and songwriter, Peter Tosh, is completely responsible for planting the seed of this apparently subversive idea. In a brilliant interview he gave me soon after his 1983 Reggae Superjam performance, which was published in Pulse magazine in June 1984, Tosh summed up his philosophy on bad words, chapter and verse.
"... When me say 'bmb-c," a guy waan tell me say me mouth is dirty and I'm using 'indecent language'. And under no sector of laws or constitution can a guy show me or clarify to me why is it this word is indecent. A guy say, "Damn you!", "Fyou" and a guy don't say nothing! But as a man say, "Bmb-c!", him vex. It has too much spirituality. Is the effectiveness that the word has."
I was intrigued by Tosh's insight that this forbidden word was invested with spirituality. Tosh was contesting the simplistic opposition of the sacred and the secular, the spiritual and the sexual, the proper and the vulgar, the good and the bad. And he explained why he had composed a song in celebration of the bad word:
"Me have a song name 'O Bmb-C' which me sing, and me sing it with dignity. Seen? If you listen to the song, from the first verse to the last, me wrote so many verses to clarify my song, because me know our middle-class nice, decent, clean people out there don't like that. But they do the most devious and evilous bmb-cthings in the society that even the Devil himself is ashamed of, but them don't waan hear me say bmb-c. A can't tek dat."
EROTIC FOLK DANCES
Peter Tosh's claim for the spirituality of the bad word is not as far-fetched as it might appear. Trinidadian literary critic and linguist, Professor Emerita Maureen Warner-Lewis, reports her observation of erotic folk dances in Berbice, Guyana. First of all, the body language is quite similar to that of the Jamaican dancehall: "The leader of the dance circle erotically clapped one hand over her genitals while raising her other hand to clasp the back of her neck."
Professor Warner-Lewis' story gets even more startling: "The leader described her action as part of a wedding dance that highlighted the significance of fertility; while making her gesture she exclaimed the word bmb, a reference to the female genitals, a word much used in Jamaica as an obscenity, and which has several Central African sources: the Bembe and Nyanga mbombo ~ bombo 'anus, arse,' the related Koongo near-synonym bombo 'wetness, clotted matter,' Mbundu bombo 'cavity' and, even more to the point, Mbundu mbumbu, 'vulva'.
So we're right back to Mr Drummond-Hays' Central African source for our much-travelled bad word. But the spirit of fertility that is honoured in erotic dance is not an exclusively male divinity. As Peter Tosh proposes, the spirituality of bmbeffectively reveals the organic connection between sex and religion. To god!
Carolyn Cooper is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Visit her bilingual blog at http://carolynjoycooper.wordpress.com. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.