September 13, 2000
By Terry Joseph
LIFESTYLE is often measurable by language. In the period before the oil-boom, for instance, slang limited itself to modest estimates of health and wealth and greetings were predictably respectful and polite.
Most people would either be forever “poke-a-poke” or “suffering but not complaining”, responses of such versatility that they answered queries about wellness or affluence with equal efficiency.
And that would be “no big thing” really, even if the respondent’s personal circumstances in either category were widely appreciated as being far better than merely comfortable.
A male job seeker would be hoping to get “a li’l end” somewhere. A woman could go on “a small lime” with “a li’l friend” and no sinister motive would be unfairly adduced. Even if you cultivated well-placed contacts, you were considered as having no more than a toe in the door.
Times were tough and the people selected imagery reflective of the pervading mood. “Yuh know how it is” was perhaps the most used saying of those days, making for effective communication, since everyone really knew precisely how things were.
These were descriptions that rallied since World War II, defining the national psyche and by the same opportunity, soothing it through the comfort of safety in numbers. Everyone, it appeared, was in the same boat, sharing the distress of hand-to-mouth existence.
But soon enough, the oil money began to trickle down and then, as if by a signal, the pipeline burst. Everyone now seemed rich. By sheer behaviour, ordinary people turned the August vacation period into summer. They went on trips to North America and engaged in demonstrations of the most vulgar consumerism. Whisky flowed like water and the agreed symbol of a successful junket, was to lug through the airport baggage-room, a teddy-bear big enough to vote.
Between that time and now, the reckless spending and other excesses to which we had become accustomed took flight again. Two currency devaluations and mortgages or car loans, that were always above the means of the majority, finally came home to roost.
This time, however, slang did not revert to reality. Where individuality had been the signature of the nouveau-riche, brands became the norm, with a pair of gym-boots repackaging itself as air-sneakers and costing as much as a lease payment did just 20 years ago.
It was too late and much too humiliating to turn back (sounds familiar?), so we continued to buy everything anyway, taking loans from local financial institutions or the World Bank, dependent on the level of responsibility reposed in the purchaser. We also got into the habit of selling whatever we could uproot, if only to keep up appearances.
Successive governments behaved as if their credit cards were invincible and the people went with the concept like lemmings. No one let on, however, because we managed to keep the language large.
Unlike those earlier tough times, the tendency today is to paint the big picture of every conceivable issue, even to the point of pluralisation where the singular already represents a maximum condition. The more devout would hold “a prayers”, as if one round of supplication could not suffice. Some thirsty people call for “a cokes” and a prim lady walks as though she cyah mash “a ants”. No one eats collective shrimp anymore.
You are now entering Big Country. Population: 1.3 million. Major occupation: continuous masquerade.
Suddenly: “Nobody big like you!” Indeed, “to big-up” has actually become a verb, qualifying for infinitive status from first application. If a friend is known to be feeling poorly or depressed by pure penury, you can call a radio station and “big him up”, a ritual that presumably imbues the hapless person with a significantly improved disposition and the poor with untold riches.
There might still be dignity in all forms of labour, but no job is now safe from being termed “a big wuk”, particularly if upon commencement, the employee buys a car and is seen rubbing shoulders with big shots. In fact, his friends will conclude that he is not telling all, because he must be “big in the dance” to be living that large.
Nor does the new terminology avoid sexist innuendo. Mr Big Stuff is a male professional involved in a lucrative practice, while a woman is only elevated to the rank of a “Big T’ing” on the basis of her bodyweight.
In fact, we seem to be big on everything except vocabulary which, as everyone knows, is situated in the brain. With hindsight, it must have been the worst deal since Native American Indians were tricked into conceding Manhattan.
What we’re left with is the masquerade—the greatest show on earth—and even that seems to be having trouble honing itself into a marketable commodity.
Terry-J at I-Level
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