5 Jamaican Proverbs to Live By

by Karen Taylor

” Proverbs are short sentences drawn from long experience.”
Cervantes, Don Quixote, 1605

TWO OLD LADIES - CLARENDON COLLEGE - CLARENDON

Can you complete these Jamaican proverbs?

1. “One,one coco ____ basket”   

2. “No wait till drum beat before you ______ you axe”

3. “If  you get your han’ in a _____ mout’ tek it out.”

4.  ” Ebry dyay debble help _______; wan dyah Gad wi help watchman.”

5.Yu cyaan _________ pahn cow bak cuss cow kin.”

Well, how well did you do? I’ll share the answers with you in a little while.

So, you may be wondering, what’s that language? Where are these proverbs from?

You’re looking at Jamaican proverbs, They are written in non-standard Jamaican English, or patois (pronounced pat-wah),

Welcome to my first Jamaican Folk Wisdom post. I promised you in my About Page that I’ll be sharing a bit of my heritage from now on, especially for the benefit of those of you who are not from Jamaica.

What is a proverb?

Grammar About.com defines a proverb as ” a short, pithy statement of a general truth, one that condenses common experience into memorable form.” One of the oldest definitions of a proverb, dating back to 1605 is offered by Miguel Cervantes, one of Spain’s most famous writers and creator of one of the world’s literary masterpieces, Don Quixote. He identified a proverb as “a short sentence based on long experience.” Jamaican historian and newspaper columnist, Dr Rebecca Tortello defines it as “short excerpts from stories about life’s lessons.”

Common experience, long experience, life’s lessons — we can agree then that proverbs can serve each generation and culture in some way as we all embark on life’s journey.

Proverbs are part of the oral tradition of a country. Heavily influenced by African and European ancestors, Jamaican proverbs originated from the language of slaves on Jamaican plantations.

Memorable, timeless, succint, and witty, proverbs are often funny to the modern Jamaican, and often used to poke fun, but as historian, Dr Rebecca Tortella notes here, they convey wise messages and lessons about survival which are not easily lost on the listener who understands the cultural symbols and metaphors inherent in many proverbs.

“Replete as they are with cultural symbolism, proverbs convey important ideas about human nature, health and social relations that often transcend their culture of origin, even though occasionally to fully understand their meaning some grounding in that culture is helpful.. Although they can poke fun many express a desire for tolerance and respect. Many also express similar ideas, reflecting the idea that there is often more than one way to say any one thing.”

     – Dr Rebecca Tortella, The Jamaica Gleaner

You can read more about this oral tradition in her column in the Jamaica Gleaner.

So let’s not waste any more time. Let’s review the five Jamaican proverbs I quizzed you on earlier. The missing word of each proverb are now included in bold along with its English translation and explanations, courtesy of the National Library of Jamaica ( http://www.nlj.gov.jm/). I’ve also included some images to help reference those cultural terms that are not immediately familiar to my non-Jamaican readers and to inject some animated humour into their interpretations,

1. Jamaican Proverb: “One, one coco full  basket.”  

A basket of coco. Coco is a starchy tuber used by many Jamaicans in soups.

Translation: Just keep adding one coco, then another, and another to fill a basket.

Explanation: Do not expect to achieve success overnight. It takes time.

2. Nuh wait til drum beat before you grine you axe.

Translation: Do not wait until the drum beats before you grind your axe.
Explanation: Be prepared for all eventualities.

3. Proverb: If  you get your han’ in a debil mout’ tek it out.

Translation: If you put your hand in the devil’s mouth, take it out carefully.
Explanation: Act cautiously in getting out of difficulty.

4. Proverb: Ebry dyay debble help teef; wan dyah Gad wi help watchman.

Translation: Every day the devil helps the thief; one day God will help the watchman.

Explanation:  We should not despair when it appears to us that unscrupulous persons continue to take advantage of us with no apparent deterrent.  God never sleeps, and is fully aware of everything occurs.  He will one day reward the efforts of the faithful.

Loo

Look Up! for your punishment draweth nigh!

5. Proverb: Yu cyaan siddung pahn cow bak cuss cow kin

Translation: You cannot sit on the back of the cow and curse the skin of the cow.

Explanation: We should not disparage others. Worse yet, we should never be ungrateful to, or disdainful of, those who help us.

Conclusion

One of the characteristics of proverbs is that their messages can be expressed in more ways than one. So, what five pieces of wisdom did our Proverbs teach us today? I’ll sum them up for you:

  1. Be patient and work hard. Little efforts will lead to big rewards one day.
  2. Life is full of surprises. Prepare for eventualities. Having a Plan B can’t do any harm.
  3. When caught in a dangerous situation, apply caution and wisdom. If that doesn’t work, RUN!
  4. God’s promise is sure: Leave all vengeance to him. He will recompense.
  5. Be grateful. Never burn your bridges behind.you, or bite the hand that feeds you.

Which of these Proverbs or their explanations is a valuable life lesson you have learnt along the way? Share in the Comment box below.

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17 thoughts on “5 Jamaican Proverbs to Live By

  1. Reading this it made me think of my mom who would always preface any Jamaican saying with “your great grandmother used to say…” (as if it wasn’t her grandmother – lol) thanks for the memories.

    Like

    • Thanks A. It’s part of our unique cultural flair, We have inherited an oral language that is meant for laughing and entertaining. We can’t help it. We are drama queens. I hope we never lose that ability to laugh at ourselves. We need to pass on the wisdom of our proverbs to the next generation.

      Liked by 1 person

    • 🙂 Now you can brag to your friends that you know five! How is that? The beauty of proverbs is that their life principles cut across cultures. I bet you could find and share five from your culture that has similar meanings. Now there’s an idea for a blog post! I’d learn something about your country’s proverbs in return. I’d love that.

      Like

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