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Old Time Tellin's: A Closer Look At Jamaican Proverbs

Complete List of Past Pieces
Port Royal Earthquake
Port Royal Earthquake : I Was There
June 20, 1965: Martin Luther King Jr. visits Jamaica
Bog Walk Tube
For Your Listening Pleasure
The Road to Freedom
Birth of Independence
Hurricane of 1780
Tragedy at Kendal 1957
The Ward Theatre 1912
The Guarded City: Port Royal 1690
The Triumph of Will:1960s
The History of Our Parishes
Jamaica and the Great War
Jamaica's Grand Hotels
Celebrating Christmas Jamaica 'Style'
Disaster - The Earthquake of 1907
The Great Exhibition of 1891
The Mutiny On The Bounty & The Arrival of The First Breadfruit 1793
The Fall Of A Gentle Giant: The Collapse of Tom Cringle's Cotton Tree
Jamaica's Botanical Gardens
All Hail The State Visit Of Emperor Haile Selassie I
Jamaican Healer And War Heroine Mary Seacole
Mistresses Of The Sea: Female Pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny
The Capital City: A Historic Look At Kingston
Riots Here: Send Help At Once
A Historic Portrait of the Town Where Jamaica's Tourism Began
Devon House -The first 500 years in Jamaica
Jamaican Coffee - A beverage of distinction
Jamaican Rum - A kill-devil of a drink
Jamaica Festival - What a Bam Bam
Captivated by Jamaica - Sir Hans Sloane's Passion for Jamaica
Captivated by Jamaica Pt II - Noel Coward, Errol Flynn and Ian Fleming
The Founding Of The BITU & The JLP
The Founding Of the People's National Party
Lewis Hutchinson: The Mad Master
A Pioneer, A Survivor: Dr. Cicely Williams

Henry Morgan: The Pirate King

Claude McKay: Jamaica's First Poet Laureate
Frazier versus Foreman on the Sunshine Island 1973
The Magical Spiderman: Anancy
The Case Of The Shark Papers
Katherine Dunham - Matriarch of Modern Dance
Money - The Roots of Jamaican Currency
Simon Bolivar: El Liberatador
Old Time Tellin's: A Closer Look At Jamaican Proverbs
Recollections of World War II
Place Names - A Window to Jamaica's History & Character: Wnat's In A Name?
The History Of Spanish Town
A Cultural Explication Of Empire: Lady Nugent's Journal
The History Of Falmouth: Boom Town Of The 19th Century
Dreamers Among Us - Famous Jamaican Scientists- Prof. Louis Grant 1913 - 1993 Part I
Dreamers Among Us - Famous Jamaican Scientists-Part II
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Jews In Jamaica
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Chinese
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Lebanese
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Indians
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Irish
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Africans
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Germans
Colourful Characters - Jamaican Birds
The Stamp Of History: The Jamaican Postal Service
The People Who Came - The English
Old-time Jamaican weddings
In this place dwelt Horatio Nelson
Printing in Jamaica
Museums in Jamaica
Gibraltar Camp: A Refuge From War
The history of the Salvation Army in Jamaica CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS
Somewhere beyond the sea
A fascination with football
Jamaican Horse racing History
A Time to Live...Jamaican Birth Rituals
A Time to Die Death rituals
Deadly superstitions

Feedback To the Series

"This is an absolutely fantastic series. It is critical that we preserve these for the long term as well as continuing to share with upcoming generations so that they can understand and feel connected to the past and that it continues to have some relevance to their future." - Peter, USA.

"This article was heartfelt. I moved away from my home country, Jamaica, as a little girl and have missed out on some of the history that I was to have learned" - Cadiehead, Jamaica.

"My son is now learning a great deal about the history of his parents homeland. Please continue with this fantastic educational site." - Sonia , England.

"Keep up the good works. It's important that these events and people are chronicled, so that history doesn't die, or get misinterpeted. Remember no history, no future." - Fabian, Canada.

"Touching, touching I yet again applaud at how much exposed Jamaica is. Keep writing these articles they are they main reason I read the newsletters (Go-jamaica)." - Georgia, USA

"Thoses Proverbs are great. I remember growing in Jamaica and hearing my grandmother using some of them." - Richard, Puerto Rico.

"I think these proverbs are very, very good especially for me who always like my roots and culture so much. Indeed I appreciate things of like this that not only educate but keeps one in line with their past. Once again thank to you all for this great effort. Now I know where to procure educative information. I am really impressed. Go my Jamaica. " - Motumbo, Costa Rica

The First 500 years in Jamaica

We're taking you for a stroll down memory lane for the next six months. Along this journey,we will relive several events which
significantly impacted on the social, political and economic development of Jamaica. As we travel share your experience with us...

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Pieces of the Past,
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"Proverbs are short sentences drawn from long experience."
Cervantes, Don Quixote, 1605.

By Dr. Rebecca Tortello

Proverbs can be defined as short excerpts from stories about life's lessons. 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. Proverbs are timeless, succinct, clever, often funny and usually memorable. 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. Many, like folk tales and fables, also use animals to depict human behaviour, thereby allowing, as does the practice of wearing masks in jonkunno or carnival, a wider means of identification and expression by removing any fear of recognition. In slavery, of course, this idea of coded personal expressions took on even greater importance.


The purpose of most proverbs is to teach about survival. They are created in several different ways: some are simple platitudes which, because they seem to have universal application, become commonly regarded as small bits of wisdom. Some are derived from actual tales or fables, others from the Bible or literary texts such as Shakespearean plays. Usually, however, it is the act of repetition that elevates an assertion to proverbial status.

In Jamaica, proverbs stand as examples of creolization ­ "a cultural action, material, psychological or spiritual based upon the stimulus response of individuals to their environment and as white/black, culturally discrete groups to each other" (Braithwaite, 1971, p, 26). Our proverbs reflect African and European influences
and are uniquely Jamaican. As in many cultures, the ability to understand proverbs rests on the level of familiarity one has with a particular culture.

Today, perceptions abound that Jamaican children's self-awareness, their sense of pride, is being eroded due to exposure to American television, music and merchandise. As a result, Jamaican academics and policymakers repeatedly cite the island as in a state of cultural chaos. Cultural systems, they warn, are under threat not only by foreign influences but from lack of recognition by Jamaicans themselves. To that end, the following proverbs, a short list of 20 taken from lists of hundreds, some common, others not so common, are presented here to challenge readers of all ages to see how in touch they are with what has been called one of the strongest roots of Jamaican culture. After you make your guesses, take some time to reflect on the wit and wisdom contained in these short statements.

Sources: Braithwaite, E. (1971). The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Morris-Brown, V. (1993). The Jamaica Handbook of Proverbs. Jamaica Island Heart Publishers.

Can you complete these Jamaican proverbs?

The following proverbs are written in a loose combination of standard English and patois ­ in an attempt to reflect the two languages commonly used on the island and out of a dual respect for the fact that this will be read rather than heard and the fact that proverbs themselves are bastions of the oral tradition, having survived orally for over hundreds of years.
  See if you can fill in the blanks.  

1. "One, one coco ____ basket" (Do not expect to achieve success overnight).  

2. "Every mikkle ____ a mukkle"
(Every little bit counts). 

"Wat doan ____, will fatten" (Do not waste time worrying over something that does you no real harm. You may even be able to turn it around into something positive).  

4. "Chicken merry, _____ dah near"
(Be vigilant as danger can be found in unexpected places).  

"Every dawg has his day and every puss his ___ o'clock" and cock mouth ____ cock. (Do not act as if you are better than others, your day will come).  

6. "Wanti, wanti, cyan getti, getti, getti nuh _____" Also "silent rivah run deep" and "No mug no bruk, no coffee nuh dash wey"
(Count your blessings and do not take what you have for granted). 

"Sorry fi mawga dog, mawga dog wi tun round and ____ you" (Sometimes it is those whom we help who are the least grateful).  

8. "Duppy know ___ fi frighten"
(Bullies know to pick on those least able to defend themselves).

"See mi a one thing, come lib with me ________" (To see me is one thing, to live with me, another or as in another popular saying, do not judge a book by its cover).  

10. "De olda de clock, de ______ it wine"
(The older a person is, the wiser).  

"When coco ripe, it mus ____" (Actions speak louder than words).  

12. "Hog say, 'de first dutty water mi ______, mi wash'."
(Seize opportunities as they present themselves).  

"One eye man king in ______ man country". (No matter how bad it seems things may be, there is always another for whom things are worse).  

14. "Fool-fool pickney mek fowl _____ away from him two time"
(Never allow yourself to be fooled the same way more than once).  

"Nuh fatten cockroach fi _____" (Do not waste time doing things for which others will be ungrateful).  

16. "Saltfish sit down pon di _______ a wait fi bread and butter"
(Lazy people wait for life's blessings to come to them).  

"Mi old, but mi nuh _____" (Do not underestimate the value of the elderly).  

18. "Disobedient pickney _____ rockstone"
(Disobedient children will come to a bad end).  

"Dawg say if him have money him would buy him own ______" (Some people, when they wind up with money, will waste it in unnecessary things).  

20. "Talk and ______ your tongue"
(Think before you speak).


1. full. 2. mek. 3. kill. 4. hawk. 5. four
6. wanti. 7. bite. 8. who. 9. another. 10. faster.
11. bus
12. ketch 13. blind 14. get 15. fowl.
16. counter. 17. cold. 18. nyam. 19. fleas. 20. taste

Coming April 21:
This series explores the recollection of World War II... from two men who experienced it..

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A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted April 07, 2003.
Copyright 2001-3 . Produced by Go-Jamaica.com