“I bongo with my lingo / Beat it like a wing yo!”– M.I.A.
Being in the company of West Indian guys liming is always interesting for a variety of reasons: the picong and ole talk being just two, and because language, local language and its usage is fascinating to me: listening to how they talk, especially listening for those specific gendered codes of expression that are distinct from how “all ah we” talk, is always intruiging. Plus, I can go for spells without hearing it sometimes, so their talk is kinda like an oasis in the desert sometimes. How we all talk encompasses those more generalised terms and expressions that are cross generational and cross-gender. The ubiquitous “partner” would be one of those terms, in a kind of way—as in “he/she is meh real good partner,” which you can hear from out of the mouth of someone in my parents’ generation down to mine and youth of the generation after me.
(Incidentally, someone told me an anecdote, I don’t remember who exactly, about how their work collegues in America thought that he was gay for the longest while because he frequently referred to a range of men as his various “partners”—the listeners, meanwhile, not understanding that in Trinbagonian parlance and other parts of the region: ‘partner’ in effect means very good friend, yuh bosom body, yuh macomère.) Women can and do use partner too (kinda like how macomère can function though many people outside certain generations rarely use this term anymore) but partner is overwhelmingly a more common male expression of friendship, in my observation.
None of the females I know personally, use this term with regularity but may use, “good friend”, “best friend”, or even “pally” of yesteryear; and of course, “girlfriend.” When they do use partner, it is with a nod to a certain kind of context of language or tone in what they are trying to say or project. (Without getting into sticky notions of hegemonic language and all that, since “partner”, although, technically, a standard English word, gets coded as non-standard here. It also becomes “pahd-nah” with a distinct local inflection, erasing the “r” sounds). No one after all, says, “yes, dat is meh real good paRtneR.”
‘Partner’ also exudes male camraderie, the closeness and or longevity of certain male friendships and the kinship of “a friend of the mind”* from Toni Morrison’s beautiful explication of love, friendship and deep knowing. So, a partner is like a friend of the mind, like a real, true blue good friend. And likewise, is “yuh riding partner” (again, its usage straddles *pun not intended* the exclusively male, and can veer into female friendship line).
So language is mighty interesting. Interesting and kind of important too, because you run the risk of missing out on some crucial implications if you don’t pay attention to either the sub-text or shifting meaning of certain words inside different spaces and cultural contexts. You might end up saying yes, (or no) to the wrong thing. As is the case with my trouble with the word “friend” some years ago up here and the way in which certain kinds of young men used it to refer to a relationship with sexual overtures, actually having nothing to do with a platonic (and non-sexual) friendship. *Shudders*
Then, there are those things that West Indian and Caribbean men (at least the ones that I know) do in conversational exchanges and one of those things is a kind of deference to respect that seems to be an intergral part of the ways in which men frequently negotiate talk with one another. So, salutations like “bossman” and “boss” function in this way, even in chance, non personal interactions. So when I am with my brother and he stops to ask info from a random man through the car window, for example, he might say something like: “bossman, yuh could tell me where so and so forth.” ‘Bossman’ is not only something to say because he doesn’t know that man and doesn’t know his name to address him in that way but it’s part of the deference to respect. Plus it’s more polite than saying: “excuse, excuse, aye—you!” or something along those lines.
It’s a subtle and gendered transaction that takes place with West Indian men through speech, in a variety of ways. “Big man” (which might be slightly, a little old school, depending on where you fall on the age spectrum) can be used much like “boss man” would (and has zilch to do with size), also used to defer respect, wrapped up inside a kind of salutation, primarily between men. Some Jamaicans say, “dada” which operates in similar way. (Don’t know anything about the evolution or etymology, if there is one) but I suspect that it works in the way that young Trini men use “fadder” (and “fadda” for father, but not really someone’s actual father)—more on that later down.
“Brethren”, “bredrin”, or shortened as “breds”, historically rooted in dread talk and the word, sound, power vibrations of Rastafari is also popularly used throughout the region. I’ve heard Trini, Jamaican, St. Lucian, Bahamian—and a range of other Caribbean men employ this word word. Both “partner” and “bredrin” function in a similar way with a difference: bredrin connotates respect and kinship. For bald-heads (or bald-head Rastas. Ha!) it covers that space inside the notion that while we cannot choose our family, we can choose our friends and sometimes, those friends become family.
It also speaks to the Afrocentric notion of an extended kinship of black folk, literally and otherwise. Similarly, “king” also borrowed from dread talk is used the same way, embodying respect, kinship and the royalty implicit with Rastafari notions of royal kings and empresses. Likewise, “my lord” (guys from the V.I. say this a lot to specifically address other men, I’ve observed), as well as “meh son”—added on to a statement as an afterword of sorts or popping up as: “yeah meh son”— function a lot like breds and fadda.
The shifting of words in a Trinbagonian context is very fascinating to me. (And occasionally, extremely annoying, as is the case with that infernal “normel” affirmation/answer/annoying-thing-to-tack-on-to-every-damn-statement these days). Plus, how Trinis talk is a way of life by itself. So, somewhere along the line, “saddis” gave way to “horse”–now in its current latest manifestation as “hoss”—and I can dig that because it saves Trinis from having to explain why they call a good friend an animal—(as I witnessed someone having to do once as an undergrad: “so why I gotta be a horse for huh? And how is that a compliment?” Or something to that effect is what was said).
Even as said people asking, completely miss the allusion to riding (“riding-partner”, get it? Riding alongside me through thick and thin, good and bad); sometimes they just miss it altogether and remain hung up on the animal factor. Plus, the change in pronunciation localizes the term a little more, as the standard English sound of horse (there’s that pesky “r” sound enunciation again!) yields to the Trinbagonian accent under the pressure of our sound.
So yeah, like ‘partner’—not everyone is yuh partner and certainly, not everyone is yuh hoss. Yuh hoss is a particular breed of friend. *Pun soooo intended there* As for popular male salutations like fadder/fadda (father) and oddly enough, “uncle”—again, it’s all about the respect, respect, respect—which is implicit inside almost all positive hail-outs among guys. The sub-text of respect is huge inside of male dialogue, apparently. Well, as I’ve noticed anyway. It’s like how not to verbally mash a man’s clarks, as it were. Alongside the subtleties of kinship alluded to taking familial titles and flipping them to become local slang code to address people who are not really related to you in that particular role. How’s that for connectivity? Yes, keeping an eye on local language is hella interesting. To quote Ferris Bueller (on life but I’ll take my liberties and apply it to language here): “. . .if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
* From Beloved: “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”– Toni Morrison (p.g. 272-273).