Mon | Dec 6, 2021

Carolyn Cooper | Pom-Pom, Yes! P**-P**, No Way!

Published:Sunday | February 24, 2019 | 12:00 AM

What a difference a vowel makes! The English word, pom-pom, is perfectly respectable. It comes from French and was, originally, a small decorative ball for a hat. Roman Catholic priests wear fancy hats with pom-poms. So do French sailors. These days, the pom-pom is usually associated with cheerleaders who use it to add dash to their high-kicking performance.

By contrast, the Jamaican word, p**-p**, is completely disreputable. It cannot be used openly in polite society. Certainly not in the upstanding Gleaner! It has to be disguised with asterisks that stand in for the ‘u’ and the ‘m’. The poor ‘p’ is left all alone.

Now p**-p** could quite easily be mistaken for pee-pee, which is a completely different matter. Pee-pee doesn’t have to hide behind asterisks in The Gleaner. It’s a permissible body fluid. It can be out in the open, in exactly the same way that some Jamaican men handle urinating in public.

The only natural advantage men have over women is the ability to urinate in public in relative privacy. But that’s an endowment many Jamaican men happily relinquish. They seem to enjoy airing out their penis. True, some of them try to be discreet. They often relieve themselves next to a tree, or the door of their car. And, incidentally, hand washing goes by the wayside.

I’m convinced that a lot of roadside urinators are suffering from prostate problems. They can’t resist the urge. And, by the way, it’s prostate, not prostrate. Admittedly, one of the consequences of prostate problems is that medication can cause erectile dysfunction. The penis does sometimes end up being prostrate. Flat on the face flaccid! Then homophobic Jamaican men are so afraid of anal penetration – even by a finger! They prefer to take the risk of getting prostate cancer rather than doing a simple, non-sexual exam.

Women are usually much better than men at taking care of our bodies. We know the value of all our human resources, from head to toe. Unlike many Jamaican men, we use our brains to protect our health. We put up with invasive medical exams involving the p**-p** and related body parts. The vaginal speculum looks like an instrument of torture. But it does serve a useful purpose. I always ask the examining doctor to let me insert it. It’s far less stressful that way.


So how did p**-p** become such an unsanitary word? Just like the old-fashioned bloody cloth used during menstruation, or femstruation, as some women prefer! Of course, the word menstruation has nothing to do with men. Unless the man impregnates the woman and stops the flow! The ‘men’ in menstruation is the first syllable of the Latin word menstrual, meaning monthly.

Like several words in the Jamaican language, p**-p** comes from Twi, one of the many languages of Ghana. There, the pedigree of p**-p** is unquestionable. It simply means swollen, like the yam that bears its name. In Jamaica, that swelling has become the defining characteristic of female genitalia. It’s a lovely image.

The swollen Jamaican p**-p** is rather modest in comparison with its Latin equivalent, the mons veneris: the mountain of Venus, the Roman goddess of beauty and love and, presumably, sex. The Romans seem to have conceived p**-p** as a very high mountain to climb. The man had to have stamina to attain peak performance. He had to stay swollen, in the spirit of p**-p**.

Another word in the Jamaican language that is of Twi origin is nyam. It means to eat. But in Jamaica it now has negative overtones. To nyam is to eat greedily. Incidentally, many Jamaican men would not admit in public that they enjoy nyamming p**-p**, whether voraciously or with nuff table manners. Like the word p**-p** itself, the pleasures of savouring the swollen mound have to be kept under wraps.


In 1999, UNESCO declared February 21 a day to celebrate mother languages across the world. The push came from Bangladesh, formerly West Pakistan, where Bengali, spoken by the majority of the people, was not recognised as an official language when the state of Pakistan was created in 1947. There were massive protests. On February 21, 1952, there was a huge rally at which five protesters were gunned down by the police. In 1956, Bengali was finally acknowledged as an official language.

In Jamaica, successive governments have failed to accept the fact that the mother language of most Jamaicans is actually a language. Much more official! It’s nothing but a ‘corrupt’ or ‘broken’ version of a ‘real’ language, English. The African elements in the Jamaican language are discounted. And many words of African origin are labelled as obscene.

The real obscenity is the psychological abuse of children whose mother language is not taken seriously by the ministry of education. For even one day of the year, we should make Jamaican the official language of instruction in all primary schools. And we must educate ourselves about our history. Eventually, African words like p**-p** will become decent, just like the mound of Venus. And pom-pom!

Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to and