Coming from Jamaican heritage, I have been exposed to a plethora of proverbs and phrases from my mother since childhood. Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Jamaican people isn’t the “cool” stereotype the West love to perpetuate but their no-nonsense approach to life lessons.
This should come as no surprise given the nation’s history of enslavement and the horrific ordeals suffered by not only the original natives but its “newer” generation from Western Africa.
Below are seventeen proverbs and phrases from Jamaican culture, some of which I live by and have heard in my household from the moment I was lucid enough to understand.
If yu cyaan ‘ear, yu mus’ feel
(If you cannot hear, you must feel)
Put simply, if you don’t heed the warnings of others, you must deal with the consequences. These can be emotional or sometimes physical so be careful!
Let fart be free wherever you be, ‘cos that was the death of poor Mary Lee
This is a silly rhyme my mother often said to me whenever someone broke wind. On a deeper level, it could be interpreted as not holding onto worries or fears or it will cause you harm.
What is joke to yu is deat’ to I!
(What is a joke to you, is death to me!)
Be mindful of who you play jokes on as the recipient could misinterpret your jovial intentions.
Finger never seh “look ‘ere,” ‘im seh “look yonder.”
(The finger never says “look here”, it says “look yonder”)
We never like taking the blame for things or acknowledging we’ve done wrong, but it’s important to do so otherwise we’ll continue to make the same mistakes and never grow.
Peacock hide ‘im foot wen ‘im ‘ear ’bout ‘im tail.
(A peacock hides his feet when he hears about his tail)
Much like above, if our weaknesses are exposed, we look to hide them and feign an aura of strength. It’s okay to be vulnerable at times; it shows you’re human.
Nuh wait till drum beat before yu grine yu axe
(Don’t wait for the drum to beat before you grind your axe)
Always be prepared. Not as punchy as the Scouts’ motto but a useful proverb nonetheless.
Dawg nuh hol ef im ha bone
(The dog does not howl if he has a bone)
You might think bad times in life are more prominent around you when you seek help but the truth is people who are happy and content rarely exclaim their joy. As a society, we moan and complain a lot and make our voices heard rather than being grateful for what we have and saying as such.
Yu cyaan siddung pon cow back n cuss cow ‘kin
(You can’t sit on a cow and insult it’s skin)
Following on from the last proverb, don’t take help from someone and insult them. You’ll soon find people help you less if you’re ungrateful afterwards.
Me come yahd fi drink milk, mi nuh come yahd fi count cow
(I came to drink milk, not count cows)
Similar in ways to “curiosity killed the cat”, don’t worry about details which do not concern you.
Chubble deh a bush, Anancy cyah l’kum a yaad
(There is trouble in the business, and Anancy takes it home.)
Anansi is a spider from West African folk legend and features heavily in Jamaican culture. He is never satisfied with leaving things in their proper place and much the displeasure of his family, he often likes to pillage the places he explores. The moral to learn here is to not concern yourself with things you should leave alone.
Wanti wanti cyaan getti, an’ getti getti noh wanti
(Those who want it can’t get it and those who get it don’t want it)
You tend to find people who want things so desperately can’t get them (at least immediately) and those who get it all the time don’t fully appreciate it when they have it. Two lessons to learn here. Nothing comes before its time and appreciate what you have when you have it.
Poun’ ah fret cyaan pay ownse ah dett
(A pound of fretting can’t pay an ounce of debt)
Worrying will only make your troubles worse and won’t solve anything. Use this time to find a solution. In the words of Bobby McFerrin, “don’t worry, be happy”.
Yuh spread yuh bed haad, yu haffi liddung pan it haad
(If you spread your bed hard, you half to lay down on it hard)
A variation of “you’ve made your bed, now lie in it”. Be accountable for your actions.
Ev’ry dawg hav’ ‘im day, n ev’ry puss ‘im 4 o’clock
(Every dog has his day and every cat his 4 o’clock)
Things might be riding high now, but they won’t always last so don’t laud it over people as the roles could soon be reversed.
Tek whey yuh get tell yu get whey yu want
(Take what you get until you get what you want)
When I was unemployed, this was a regular phrases uttered by my mother and it’ll always ring true. An ideal situation may come to you but not immediately (unless you’re lucky). In the meantime, take another opportunity until that perfect job or situation comes about.
If yu cyaan get turkey, yu haffi satisfy wid Jancro
(If you can’t get turkey, you have to be satisfied with John Crow)
John Crow is the name of a symbolic bird in Jamaica.
There will be times when you can’t have what you want and you have to settle for what you’re given. More often than not, these times come when you least expect them so, again, be grateful and appreciate what you have while it’s here.
Good frien’ betta dan pocket money
(A good friend is better than money)
Money is a tool, not a saviour. People can provide better assistance than financial aids so if you have the choice of both, consider your options carefully.
More on Jamaica: the forgotten diaspora of Chinese-Jamaicans, a very brief history of Jamaican rum, and 28 facts about Jamaican culture