Sat | Jan 28, 2023

Don't know Jack

Published:Saturday | February 20, 2010 | 12:00 AM

IN EVERY country, there are words and phrases the natives, including the media, take for granted until some stranger asks, like Denise Plummer the Calypsonian, "What is this?" I grew up with the word 'mammaguy' knowing that it was flattery with a higher than normal level of insincerity. So how would I expect a foreigner to believe that when I used the word I was not referring to him as a softie or 'mother's boy' or, even worse, discussing my mother's boyfriend?

The first time my wife saw the word 'lagniappe' used in a Trinidad newspaper, she was mystified. She was even more befuddled when I responded, "You mean 'lie-up'?" Essentially, according to Richard Allsopp's 'Dictionary of Caribbean Usage' (DCU), the word 'lagniappe' or 'lanyap' is the same as 'braata', 'bra-ta', 'braw-ter', 'broth-a' and 'brought-a' used in Antigua, Belize, Jamaica, Montserrat, Tobago, the Virgin Islands. To confuse it further, the Guyanese use 'baksis' or 'brataas', as well as 'overs' and 'making up'. Grenadians say 'pwayen'. What all these words refer to is an extra bit of something bought or small gift added by the seller in the marketplace to encourage the buyer to come again. Three for the price of two is as much a lagniappe as a discount.

I got caught with 'koker'. There are always several mentions of the word in the Guyanese newspapers. This is an example: "High tides yesterday damaged a koker at Stewartville, Region Three." The first time I saw the word, I was mystified and reminded myself of the advice given to me as a young journalist: "Don't assume that because you know the meaning of a word or that it is in common usage in your country, everyone knows it. Pretend you're a man from Mars. If any word is not standard English, you should ensure that you include the meaning either directly or within the context of what you write."

However, if Russian computers translated the English phrase, 'out of sight, out of mind' in Russian as 'invisible maniac', how would a Martian translator deal with it? 'Rare Terran medical condition referring to a visually challenged victim of something known as Alzheimer's syndrome' sounds more like what an inter-galactic RosettaStone would convert it to.

A 'koker'

Anyhow, a 'koker' is a "large sluice mechanism standing high at the coastal or river-end of a canal". The problem with explanations like this is that a Trini would respond quizzically, "Ah sloose? What is ah sloose?" Remember, this is a country where, in the early days of Italian fast-food outlets, I heard a young lady ask for "spriggedy and meat balls". Worse, a 'canal' in Trinidad is a 'drain', and those lacking canal knowledge would again wonder who in their right minds would want to put a gate on a canal. However, given the fact that most of the Guyana coastal and populated area is under sea level, things definitely go better with koker.

Things also go better with a good 'lime'. One view is that the use of the term 'lime' to mean "to sit, loaf or hang about with others, usually on the sidewalk or open place, chatting aimlessly, watching passers-by and sometimes making unsolicited remarks to them" originated in Trinidad during World War Two. The DCU says the term was "applied to white American sailors from the naval base who hung around bawdy-house areas in groups". It is said to be a "back-formation from 'limey' as a derogatory term for a white person of low class".

I have a more romantic and possibly more authentic explanation. In the days before vitamins, there was scurvy, a skin disease which only vitamin C or fresh citrus fruits, notably limes, could cure. The English and other planters mixed their rum with lime juice (basic Margaritas) and, after a hard day's slave-bashing, would sit on their verandas drinking their lime-based cocktails. They were social folk and so invited their friends to join them for a lime. Hence liming became a social occasion and was not restricted to visits to brothels.

The origins of 'liming'

What is incredible is that liming is now integral to a new word that seems to have evolved this carnival in Trinidad. The word is 'palance'. It is not Trinidadian for a "spear belonging to one's immediate male ancestor". It is supposedly a combination of 'party', 'lime' and 'dance'. The headlines in Trinidad's Ash Wednesday editions of its three daily newspapers screamed 'Palance by miles', 'No stopping palance in road-march race' and 'Palaance! Palaance!' In rapid time, the word 'palance' became a verb - people were palancing in the streets and in parties all across Trinidad. Soon, it will be everywhere in the Caribbean and North America.

I was mystified when I first heard the term palance used in the context of Trinidad carnival as a soca song. For my generation, palance was Jack Palance, an actor who specialised in roles as a sinister gunman who inevitably got his comeuppance at the end. According to his biography, "He exemplified evil incarnate on film - portraying some of the most intense and gripping villains witnessed in '50s westerns and melodrama." His best known role for most of his career was as the "creepy, sadistic gunslinger Jack Wilson who becomes Alan Ladd's biggest nightmare (not to mention others) in the classic western
(1953). Their climactic showdown alone is textbook." Was it, I asked myself, part of the crime-wave culture that is taking hold in the country? Was (another Trinidad term) the 'bad-Johnism' mentality now being promoted and popularised?

I need not have feared. JW and Blaze, the creators of the song, are two disc jockeys. Their video on YouTube is typically Trinidadian party music but they have a freshness, a kind of insouciance, that is contagious and propels the song forward. It's a perennial 'Thank God it's Friday' song that is good for everyday usage. Even when the song dies on the charts, the word will live on in local parlance or palance, whichever you prefer.

Tony Deyal was last seen saying that the only reason the Americans and Pakistanis were able to capture Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Karachi last week was that he came out to palance and was really on his way to a Lahore house.