Proverbs are brief, didactic statements which express some basic truth and form an important element in oral culture. They also play an important role in written literature. Tanner (1984) notes that “in literature proverbs are often used to characterize a figure or to summarize neatly a situation.” Some proverbs have both a literal and figurative meaning, but more often, they have but one of the two and are created with a range of literary techniques.
Proverbs are one of Jamaica’s oral art forms. Jamaican proverbs are derived from two main cultures from which they originated: the West African and the European culture. African- derived proverbs are found in folktales, at the ending of a tale, and are quoted by the characters. As it is in Africa, so it is in Jamaica: the proverbs are not merely told as stories, but are a living part of the folk tradition and the vehicles of conversation. Anyone who is acquainted with Jamaica ‘talk’ will be easily able to pick up several proverbs being exchanged in conversations between two people. There are proverbs suitable for almost every conceivable topic.
In Jamaica, proverbs are used primarily in three different ways. Their didactic qualities are recognized as being essential tools in the rearing of children. Among adults, proverbs prove to be cutting social weapons or weapons of verbal defence. In the arts, they help to shape oral narratives. Proverbs also serve as an educational and social function, assisting the younger generation to learn the norms of society.
Below are Jamaican proverbs and sayings that may be heard in different parts of the country, though not common in everyday speech as of olden times, but continue to provide relevance and give purpose to every aspect of Jamaican life.
Ackee lub fat, okra lub salt.
Ackees are tasty fried in fat and ochras are insipid without salt.
Explanation: Every man to his taste.
No cuss alligator long mout’ til you cross riber.
Explanation: Discretion is the best part of valour.
Tek time watch ant you see how him mek.
Explanation: One learns by observation.
Hang yu basket whe’ yu can reach it.
Explanation: Don’t try to obtain things you can’t afford.
No put yourself in a barrel when match-box can hol’ you.
Explanation: Do not pretend to be more important than you are.
New broom sweep clean, old broom know corner.
Explanation: Experience is just as valuable as new efficiency.
Me no call you, no come.
Explanation: Do not intrude where you are not wanted.
Cock mouth kill cock.
Explanation: One can chatter one’s way into trouble.
You can’ sit down ’pon cow back, no cuss cow ’kin.
Explanation: You must not abuse that from which you are gaining advantages.
Do-fe-do no harm.
Explanation: One good turn deserves another.
Darg no bark when you bruk him back.
Explanation: One makes more fuss over trifles than over calamities.
Duppy know who fe frighten.
Explanation: People will only injure those who they know cannot retaliate.
Ebery bittle fe eat, no ebery ’tory fe talk.
Explanation: Do not talk too freely about your private affairs.
Studderation beat education.
Explanation: Study is better than education
Nebber tek ’nodder man yeye fe see pan.
Explanation: Judge for yourself.
You can’ carry two face under one hat.
Explanation: Practise what you preach.
Nyam fambly bittle, but no cut fambly ’tory.
Explanation: Accept hospitality of a family, but do not meddle in family gossip.
No all foot in a boot a good foot.
Explanation: Don’t judge by outward appearances only.
Good me do, tanky me get.
Explanation: Small thanks for my pains. (Sarcastic manner)
Dat someting wha’ sweet nanny-goat run him belly.
Explanation: Often things we like are not good for us.
Nanny-goat neber ’cratch him back till him see wall.
Explanation: Await the proper opportunity.
Han’ full, han’ come.
Explanation: The rich never lack friends.
Heel nebber go before toe.
Explanation: Important matters must be dealt with first.
Howdye and tanky, bruk no square.
Explanation: Politeness hurts no one.
“Me-know-it” nebber go before.
Explanation: It is easy to be wise after the event.
Ebery John Crow tink him pickey white.
Explanation: What is one’s own is always the best.
You can’ keep crow from flyin’, but you can keep him from pitchin’ ’pon you head.
Explanation: You cannot prevent evil doing, but you can avoid taking part in it.
Only knife know wha’ into yam heart.
Explanation: Only those who investigate closely understand a subject.
Wha’ you know a day, you can’ shake fire-’tick fe look for a night.
Explanation: What you have in prosperity, you can’t expect to have in hard times.
Sabby-so mek mekso ’tan so.
Explanation: On the understanding of a thing, depends how it is accomplished.
Fus’ word go a law.
Explanation: It is the first statement that counts.
Ano’ same day leaf drop in a water he rotten.
Explanation: One is influenced by one’s surroundings.
Licky licky betta dan dola a day.
Explanation: A little coming in regularly is better than a dollar a day which may fail.
You shake man han’, you no shake him heart.
Explanation: Acquaintance is not friendship.
De man all honey, fly wi’ nyam him.
Explanation: The over-generous are soon ruined.
Shut mout’ no ketch fly.
Explanation: Mind your own business and so avoid trouble.
If plantain ben know say him neck gwine bruk him nebber would a shoot.
Explanation: We should never venture on anything if we know that it would end in disaster.
You nebber see empty pot bwoil over.
Explanation: Poor people have nothing to give away.
Potoo know say him yeye deep, him begin fe cry soon.
Explanation: If the work is difficult make an early start.
Play wid puppy, puppy lick yu mouth.
Explanation: If one associates with an inferior person, one’s social standing will be lessened.
Man no spread clothes a door, him no watch rain.
Explanation: He keeps an eye on what may affect him.
A no ebery day rain come light.
Explanation: It’s not every day that the rain falls light, implying a threat that someday the unresisting may be avenged.
Ratta no play a empty loft.
Explanation: He does not waste his time where he can gain nothing.
Nebber mek you sail too big fe you ship.
Explanation: Do not undertake more than you can carry out.
‘Tan’ sof’ly better dan beg pardon.
Explanation: Better not give offence than have to apologize.
‘Tory dey fe talk, but long bench no dey fe si’ dun ’pon.
Explanation: I have much to say, but no convenient opportunity.
If you call tiger massa, him we’ nyam you.
Explanation: It does not pay to be too humble.
To-day fe me, to-morra fe you.
Explanation: My misfortune today may be yours tomorrow.
Trouble dey a bush, anancy bring i’ come a house.
Explanation: Some people bring trouble upon themselves by their imprudence.
Umbrella mek fe rain, bockra use i’ fe sun.
Explanation: Refers to the white man’s powers of adaptation.
Fe walk fe nuttin better dan fe si’ down fe nuttin.
Explanation: It is better to look for a thing than wait until it comes to you.
Rub ole ’ooman back, him mek you tas’e him pepper pot.
Explanation: If you want to get anything out of some people you must first do them a service.
Wud a mout’ no load ’pon head.
Explanation: Mere words do not amount to much.
Anderson, I., & Cundall, F. (1972). Jamaica Proverbs and Sayings. Kingston, Jamaica: The Institute of Jamaica.
Barrett, L. (1976). The Sun and the Drum. Kingston, Jamaica: Sangster’s Book Stores in association with Heinemann Educational Books.
Cassidy, F.G., & Page, R. B. (eds.) (1967). Dictionary of Jamaican English. London, England: Cambridge University Press.
Peenie Wallie Magazine. Proverbs. 1(2): 22.
Senior, O. (2003). Encyclopaedia of Jamaican Heritage. Kingston, Jamaica: Twin Guinep Publishers.
Tanner, L. (1984). Jamaican Folk Tales and Oral Histories. Kingston, Jamaica: Institute of Jamaica Publications.
Wariboko, W. (2001). Some aspects of West African Oral Culture: Griots and Proverbs. St. Andrew, Jamaica: University of the West Indies.
A – of
Ben – did
Bittle – victuals
Bockra – white man
Boot – shoes
Bruk – break, broken
Bwoil – boil
Can’ – can’t
‘Cratch – scratch
Cuss – curse
Dan – than
Darg – Dog
Dat – that
Dey – there
Dolla – dollar
Do-fe-do – one action for another, tit for tat
Duppy – ghost
Ebery – every
Fambly – family
Fe – for
Fus – first
Gwine – going
Han’ – hand
He – it
Him – he, his, she, her
Hol’ – hold
Howdye – How -do- you- do?
‘I – it
‘Kin – skin
Licky – little
Lub – love
Massa – master
Me-know-it – I know it
Mek – make
mout’ – mouth
Nebber – never
No – do not
‘Nodder – another
Nuttin – nothing
Nyam – eat
Ole – old
‘Ooman – woman
Pepper pot – a thick rich soup
Pickney – child
Pon’ – on
Ratta – rat
Riber – river
Sabby-so – knowledge
Si’ dun – sit down
Sof’ly – softly
Studderation – studying
Tas’e – taste
Tek – take
‘Tan’ – stand
Tanky – thank you
‘Tick – stick
Til – until
Tink – think
To-morra – tomorrow
‘Tory – story
Wha’- what, who
Wud – word
Wi – will
Yeye – eye
Yu – you