10 May, 2006

Fe / raas

A while ago I wrote a post about the old slang term narpoo; I concluded by calling it "a word dragging meaning into itself like a vortex", comparing it to fuck and quoz. Words still very much alive: how can these fail to excite the heart? This morning I came across my notebook from last year, and discovered various scribbled jottings of unknown provenance. One of these got me thinking about Jamaican / Rastafarian patois, my favourite of all vernaculars, both in pure music and in verbal innovation. I had written down the words fe and raas. Both of these are found abundantly in a wonderful book, Michael Thelwell's novelisation of the Jimmy Cliff movie The Harder They Come, which I read a few years back. The novel captures the patois perfectly (at least, it seems to!), the melodic lilts of the reported speech seeping out into the narrative voice as Thelwell switches to various interior monologues. And those words, fe, raas, are little narpoos, agglomerating sense and feeling. Below I cite F. G. Cassidy and R. B. Le Page, Dictionary of Jamaican English, 2nd ed. (1980), though I'm not sure how reliable this scholarly work is, with meagre entries for blood clot (bloodclaat), Jah and the prefix I-.

1. Fe. This word, which Thelwell renders 'fe', but Cassidy/Le Page 'fi', is a junked syllable, a zero-graded for, with a great semantic sweep. The dictionary offers a number of uses, hard to categorise neatly: a) as a possessive, fe mi meaning 'mine', b) as a replacement for against, of, to, for, etc., c) "In modal expressions... where Ja dial. omits the verb to be, and some of the modal force is shifted to fi making it quasi-auxiliary: must, should, ought to, have to". The word thus smudges all manner of precisely-articulated meanings, giving the patois a simple, brutal, gymnastic quality. Here are examples from Thelwell:
Ah tell you, if fe me pickney [boy] evah try anything like dis, Ah beat him till him fenneh [tired].

Me no have time fe play with pickney. [Here play can be taken either as a noun, giving 'for play', or as a verb, giving 'to play'.]

Is lose you wan' me fe lose de work, nuh? [Do you want me to lose my job, eh?]

But after me no have not a damn place fe put something like this! You out fe kill somebady, nuh?
2. Raas. Invective, naturally, is a site of disproportionate activity for a vibrant vernacular, and the Rastafarian patois is no exception. But raas has a curious ambiguity about it. Here's what Cassidy/Le Page say about its origin: "RAAS. prob by metathesis, from arse, buttocks, but also possibly by metanalysis; your-arse [becomes] you-rarse. In favour of the first is the sense of raspberry, a disapproving, fart-like noise (Partridge), in which is a latent pun. The former would be earlier, before r ceased to be pronounced." (One notes the Anglocentric bias in choosing 'arse', rather than the more likely 'ass', as the parent word.) Thus, the primary meaning is the buttocks. But, like ass and arse, which each have subtly different connotations, rass extends its use to pure exclamation, "to show strong opposition: scorn, anger, impatience, etc." The simple sense is well illustrated by a song quoted from J. B. Moreton's 1790 Manners and Customs in the West India Islands:
Then missess fum me wid long switch
And say him da for massa;
My massa curse her, 'lying bitch!'
And tell her 'buss my rassa!
Thelwell offers the developed senses, the clearest of which is "Dis raas man mad?" (compare Is this asshole crazy?, except that raas is ruder than asshole). Then we have, "My nerve dem no even recover yet. It alias no raas." (My nerves haven't even recovered yet. It's dangerous, no shit.) But then he throws up these oddities, which have the feel of positive expletives:
"Wonderful," Mass' Burt said, "It wonderful to raas, man."

A star is born to raas.
Interestingly, Mike Pawka's online dictionary conflates raas with the very different ras: "RAS or RASS: backside, rump; a common curse is to rass! or rass clot! a title used by Rastafarians meaning 'lord' or 'head'." The latter word, ras, as in Ras Tafari, is indeed the Amharic word for 'head' or 'king' (the same sense-progression as Latin caput or Greek arkhe). It is closely related to the Hebrew word rosh, as in Rosh Hashanah, literally the 'head of the year', and to the very first word of Genesis, be-resh-it, 'in the beginning', literally 'at the head'.

1 comment:

hopefield prep boy said...

"One notes the Anglocentric bias in choosing 'arse', rather than the more likely 'ass', as the parent word."

- Unless Jamaica was an American colony rather than a British one I don't know why 'ass' would be more likely. At any rate in Jamaica it's pronounced 'arse', which of course rhymes with 'raas'.