Although passed on to Glory now since 2005, my beloved Auntie Berenice, who worked on the Panama Canal Zone as a maid and, finally, a cook, all her life, never leaves my side at my writing desk. It was from her that I learned about the Westindians of Panama and grew to love and understand our English patois.
Recently, I came across a jewel of a little book called Maid in Panama, authored by Susie Pearl Core and published by Clermont Press in 1938. At first I balked at the racist, two dimensional illustrations and the clearly colonial style of addressing the “colored help,”but the author carefully fills this compilation of anecdotes and observations of the West Indians who served her and the rest of the Gold Roll while she lived in the Canal Zone with generous admissions of her admiration for the language of these “loyal servants.” If you can get past your distaste for the racist expressions here and there, you can, as I came to, appreciate how keenly she observed and documented the language of our ancestors which highlights the nuances peculiar to our people. This particular section which I’m posting today was entitled Language Potency.
While idiosyncrasies of diction among the older West Indian generation here differ as radically as do the various vernacular patterns peculiar to the speech of our South, Middle West, or “Down East” sections, there are a few expressions which are staple; a picturesque part of the vocabulary used by practically every West Indian whose manner of speaking had been formed before he left His Majesty’s holding in the New World.
“Next” is an old stand-by; without which the Jamaican would be bereft indeed. “The nex’ lady come to call this afternoon, Ma’am!” Or, “The nex’ gentleman say he come back at four o’clock, Sir!” The exact meaning of “next” is not especially clear, but certainly it performs a multiple service. “Would you like a nex’ cup of cawfee, Sir?” “The baiby done drink heself a nex’ glass of milk this afternoon, Mistress I” “Here is a nex’ orange, Ma’am, if’n you need one!”
A mistress who asks her kitchen helper to hand her another egg, will invariably be told, “The nex’ egg don’t there, Mistress. All finish!” And the housewife will know, if she has been on the Isthmus even a month, that a trip to the commy egg counter faces her in the immediate future.
Any lady who is engaged in the tedious process of assisting in boosting the census enrollment, is always, according to Jamaican parlance, “Making a baiby.” A sensible way of stating the situation, too; for it leaves no room whatsoever for misunderstanding.
“Finish” is another of the A B C’s of the West Indian vocabulary. “The coffee all finish, Ma’am!” Or, “We’ll have to use brown bread for dinner, Mistress; the white loaf finish!” Everything gets finished. The ironing is finish, the cake is finish, the oranges are all finish, and the ham it finish too. It is a good sturdy word which renders heroic service.
There may be a few West Indians among us who pronounce the name “Smith” the way we do, but they are not many. “Simit,” is the accepted Jamaican version ; and a good many of a Smith’s white associates humorously call him by the same title — Mr. Simit. Some Smiths on the Isthmus are never called by any other name.
Maturity means ripeness, and the West Indian uses it to denote just that. A caller during one’s absence will be described by the maid upon one’s return, as a “ripe enough wo-man of considerable heft!” A colored laborer, asked by his boss, “How old a fellow is this Hendricks that you say is a good carpenter? “will be told, “Him a ripe enough man, Boss!”
Describing the vicissitudes of age which creep upon one, a maid will tell her mistress, “Liza not so spry as she used to was, ma’am. She getting pretty ripe, now, you know!”
No list of colored localisms would be complete without “mash-up.” It is spoken as one word, “mashup,” and means all sorts of disturbances — mental, moral, and physical. Henrietta, the Thompson’s maid, is all mashup because her man done took up with a no ‘count Bajan ‘oman. And your own Edith doesn’t feel so spry for work this morning, because she took castor h’ile last night, and is all mashup! A truck ran over a neighbor’s cat and, logically enough, left it all mashup; Also a man whot kotch malaria when him stay too long in de bush, will have to go hospital because him all mashup.
A cake which comes to no good end in the oven, is “Too bad, ma’am, it all mashup !” And a plate dropped on the floor during the ritual of dish washing, will probably call forth a burst of Jamaican consternation in “Oh mi Lord Jesus — it all mashup!”