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When The Political Tongue Slips

Earl Best recalls some occasions when the public language was not, ahm, parliamentary…

Three years ago, Benjai’s monster hit “Trini” mash up the whole place.

“And they like to hear Trini talk, talk, talk, talk, talk…,” he told us.

There wasn’t one dissenting voice.

That “they” includes me because, in my view, Trinidad is such a wonderful place to be for those willing to listen and keep the zip on their own mouths closed. (That open secret, by the way, has not been shared with the MoNS, the Monster of, oops, Minister of National Security,  Motor Mouth Gary Griffith).

Photo: National Security Minister Gary Griffith.
Photo: National Security Minister Gary Griffith.

But we can always put the blame on Earl Lovelace. Ent is he who tell we that “Is only a movie”?

As I was saying, Trini’s “they” includes me but I’m not certain it includes Express columnist Sheila Rampersad and several of her fellow columnists. In her piece this week, Rampersad cites the case of Camille Robinson-Regis who used the word “rats” in the Senate; this disparaging term was used by the Leader of Government Business in the Upper House in reference to a handful of worthy gentlemen who had felt compelled to comment on the Parliament’s attempt to pull another fast one on us and approve huge pensions for themselves under cover of improving the sorry lot of current and former judges.

Language, the good doctor argued, matters, even for politicians from whom we may have come not to expect too much. And the examples abound, from Eric Williams’ “One from ten leave nought” to Desmond Cartey’s “All ah we tief” through Mrs Hazel Manning’s “breakfasses” all the way to Mr Adesh Nanan’s “paradigim.”

But the careless speakers of the Trini language are not the only ones who make their mark; some of the careful ones are no less memorable.

I mean, do you really think that when he fired him in 2008, Mr Manning could not have described Mr Rowley as “belligerent” and his conduct as “unacceptable”? We’d all have understood but would we have remembered?

But Mr Manning’s lasting gift to the future PM is an image perhaps forever tainted by his “wajang” behaviour and a “Rottweiler” tag.

And if former big MoWT (Minister of Works and Transport) Jack Warner had told Andrew Jennings in so many words to “Pursue that line of inquiry with your female progenitor,” would Jennings have reacted – and many of us with him – as he did? I doubt it.

Brevity being the soul of wit, “Ask yuh mudder!” is ever so much more soulful, brother Jack, amen.

Photo: Jack Warner (right) offers British investigative journalist, Andrew Jennings directions to his deceased mother.
Photo: Jack Warner (right) offers British investigative journalist, Andrew Jennings directions to his deceased mother.

Yes, sirree. There can be little doubt that parliamentary language is a gift. For would we have remembered what then Prime Minister Basdeo Panday had said had he opted to suggest to the TV6 interviewer that, “I think that, as a responsible reporter, you should rephrase that question”?

Who would choose such blandness over the charm of that so much more carefully selected duo, “That’s insulting!”?

Current Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar too has parliamentary language to thank for rescuing her from the oblivion that is currently killing her former MoWT. Would you still recall with a chuckle that memorable statement if, in her wisdom, the PM-to-be had followed her instinct and gone with “I’m afraid I have to plead complete ignorance on that subject” instead of saying, after much reflection, “The only pipe I know about is Mr Bissessar pipe!”?

But it was the calypsonian Explainer who first complained decades ago that the politicians were “kicksin in Parliament.” However, the calypsonians too have caught the public’s attention with their language. I know. I once overheard a heated – the fire had a UTT, not an Angostura or a Caroni logo on it – riverside argument that started with a calypso CD and ended with a culinary CD (Curry Duck).

It was provoked entirely by the desire to work out precisely what a fictional person might have said. Had Bally simply quoted the “Maxi Dub” driver’s response to his request that he turn the radio down (“…play a little sorfer”), there would have been no problem. But the bard gave free rein to the Trini imagination – and a very long shelf life to his kaiso – with the version of his popular 1989 tune that blared from the speaker-filled car trunk.

“All mih family de drive expose to me wey deh born.”

“Yuh hear dat? ‘Expose.’ Dat is a strong word. Bally eh use dat fuh joke.”

Photo: Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar's home-coming after the local government election results.
Photo: Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s home-coming after the local government election results.

And so it began. One of the combatants who suggested, slurred speech and all, that the initial reaction would have been “Buh look at my crosses!” was shouted down.

“When man vex,” he was told to loud cheering and jeering, “deh doh have time fuh no crosses!”

The suggestion that the driver would certainly have followed his, well, colourful statement with the angry, pointed question, “Your money buy this maxi or this radio or what?” was unanimously approved.

There was general consensus too that the exclamation either began with “Look, mister…” or ended with “…nah, mister!”  And the utterance would also have contained, all agreed, at least two words in common with JAW’s response to Jennings.

A four-letter imperative would have replaced, none disputed, Warner’s “Ask” and the noun object included would have referred to a specific anatomical feature.

But one sticking point was whether the driver’s opening sentence contained an adjective – some argued very strongly that it must have – designed to give some indication of size.

And the major bone of contention was – circumspection is required here lest there be unintended offence to the more delicate ears and eyes – whether it would also have contained an adjective designed to activate one’s sense of smell.

Photo: Former Prime Minister Patrick Manning.
Photo: Former Prime Minister Patrick Manning.

Intrigued, I went home and put on my Bally CD on which the calypsonian clearly says, “All mih family/the drive describe to me wey deh born.”

And I was glad that I had just listened and kept the zip on my own mouth closed.

About Earl Best

Earl Best
Earl Best taught cricket, French, football and Spanish at QRC for many years and has written consistently for the Tapia and the Trinidad and Tobago Review since the 1970's. He is also a former sports editor at the Trinidad Guardian and the Trinidad Express and is now a senior lecturer in Journalism at COSTAATT.

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One comment

  1. This is why the lady down South chose to tell the PM to “put de highway between she leg” instead of a much more elegant “construct the highway in the space between your thighs.” Her message had much more “oomph” the way she delivered it.