Editorial: Cultural Roogadoo in 2022

Linguistic researchers from the mainland came to St. Croix to interview elderly people some 15 years ago. They wanted to get samples of the words old-timers used and their pronunciation. I don’t remember which universities the scholars were from, and I can’t find my original article on the subject, but I do remember them saying language changes over time — new words come into fashion, and old ones fall away for a variety of reasons.

(Submitted photo)

Immigration is a prime changer. As a population diversifies, so does its language. It’s the opposite of 20th Century cable television, which had a homogenizing effect that supplanted local norms with those of the narrow pop culture of the moment.

Whatever the cause, we’ve lost a lot of the words and phrases that were once commonplace in the Virgin Islands.

Many of these old phrases are cataloged in the 2018 book Meet Meh Undah Deh Bongolo & Tark Like We No: A Case for Virgin Islands Creole Den An’ Now & a Socio-Cultural Lexicon by Clement White.

I happened on the book when researching my mother-in-law’s father, Cyril Michael — a judge of the Police Court from 1954 and the first judge elected to the then-new Virgin Islands Municipal Court in 1965. So linked was Judge Michael with the legal system that aggrieved parties need only call his name.

According to the book, “Take yoh toh Michael” was a common St. Thomas phrase meaning, “I’ll see you in court!”

In 1978 the V.I. Legislature passed a bill renaming Bjerge Gade to Cyril Michael Street — but the Department of Public Works still hasn’t gotten around to changing the sign.

A few years ago, I was out with Judge Michael’s daughter — my mother-in-law — when she was spotted by an inebriated woman of a certain age.

“I knew your father,” I remember the woman slurring. “I was before him two times: drunk and disorderly. He was a fair man. A fair man!”

If you have ever threatened to take someone to Michael, you may know some of the phrases found in Meet Meh Undah Deh Bongolo. Here are a few more, some still commonplace, others obscure. Please note: I’m using the spelling found in the book; you may know it differently. See how many you can get. The answers are at the end.

1. Meet me undah deh bongolo

2. Wa doan kill duz fatten

3. Us crime

4. Tell cow howdy

5. Tesik

6. Skinnin’ up you face

7. Simpavivy

8. Shorty de Zulu / Koka deh bear wid deh halfa ear

9. Ratta

10. Nackin’ darg

Meet Meh Undah Deh Bongolo is great fun to have around the house. Book have word dem nackin’ darg not! I highly recommend it.

Spoiler alert: answers

1. The bongolo is the covered area in Charlotte Amalie’s Market Square. It was once the center of social and commercial activity in town.

2. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger

3. Blasphemy, specifically calling Jesus Christ’s name in vain.

4. You talk too much

5. An unspecified cold, usually a respiratory infection.

6. Making up your face in a rude or contemptuous way

7. Aloe

8. Two ubiquitous Carnival entries of the 1950s and 1960s.

9. Temporary swelling from a wound.

10. A lot of something