Monday, January 22, 2018

Life without fear

 Growing up in Trinidad, I had a more than fair idea of the many uses of the word “fair”.  After all, I was deemed to be of “fair” skin and when asked to adjudicate in any contest, especially among warring neighbours, it did not let my fear over-rule my attempt to be “fair”.  We had the annual village “fair” and when I asked adults about any village occurrence I was told it was “none of my affair” although I had a “fairly” good idea what the answer should be.  I knew that people could be “unfair” to me and by an early age had some experience in adults not behaving according to the principles of equality and justice.

I will never forget an experience when I played cricket in the Trinidad hinterlands.  I considered myself a “fast” bowler and had a “slinger” action – similar to Lasith Malinga and Fidel Edwards – but not as quick.  I ran up, bowled, the batsman hit the ball in the air to the fieldsman at cover who caught it and started to celebrate.  At that point the umpire called loudly, “No ball!”  The next ball, was short and rising outside the off-stump.  The batsman nicked it into the wicket-keeper’s gloves and despite the loud snick the umpire ruled, “Not out!”  We expected a certain amount of visually challenged and hearing impaired umpires in the “bush” cricket we played so at the end of the over we changed over for the next over.  It is then that the batsman who had profited so handsomely from the umpiring decisions came down the pitch and asked the umpire, “How I batting Mammoo.”  “Mammoo” is Hindi for “Uncle” and it is at that point with some choice language we retired from the fray, beating a hasty retreat when the word “gun” came up, accompanied by “cutlass” and “shoot”.  

So I knew “fair” as an adjective, noun and adverb and had read that it could be used as a verb when referring to the weather in one of the English dialects as in, “Looks like it’s fairing off some.”  I had experienced “unfair”, but until I went to live in Barbados not as a verb.  It was in Barbados that I found that I could “unfair” someone or could myself be “unfaired”.  I loved it.  It was the missing ingredient in the language.  If I had a time machine that would take me back to the cricket match, I would carry with me not a bull-whip, gun, cutlass or a big stone.  What I would take is the word “unfaired”.  It is a word with power.  “You unfaired me,” I would say quietly. 

I have tried to track down the unique Barbadian usage of “unfair” as a verb and have not been successful. What amazes many of us is that the word “unfriend”, which we think of as a Facebook convenience or inconvenience, has a long history that predates social media by several centuries.  According to the website “Mental Floss”, “unfriend” showed up in 1659 in this sentence, “I Hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Un-friended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.”

Actually, “unhand” is also one of those words.  An example of its use from the early 17th century is, “Unhand me you wretched coward!”  In the event (an interesting phrase since you don’t have to be in an actual event to use it) that you believe its use stopped with the melodramatic silent movies, Singer-Songwriter, David Cloyd, named his 2009 debut album, Unhand Me You Fiend.

While we use “hand” as a verb (e.g. Hand me that), it is not often we see “friend” as a verb.  Mental Floss says, “A common lament in pieces about ‘kids these days and their social whatsawhozits’ is “when did ‘friend’ become a verb?!” The answer is: Sometime in the 1400s. In the earliest examples of the verb ‘friend’ from the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), it means to make friends. You could go to a place, and ‘friend’ some people there. It also had the meaning of help someone out, be a friend to them.  While Mental Floss might know that the word “befriend” exists and is a verb, we in the Caribbean have been using “friend” as a verb for a long time now.  In my village, when a man and woman got very close, we would say that “Tom friending with Janet” or vice versa but never in the presence of Janet’s husband or Tom’s wife.  

This is why I am not surprised that researchers came up with a list of two dozen “ultraconserved words” that have survived 150 centuries. It includes some predictable entries: “mother,” “not,” “what,” “to hear” and “man.” It also contains surprises: “to flow,” “ashes” and “worm.”  In fact, they have put together a little speech of four sentences which if you went back 15,000 years and spoke these words to hunter-gatherers in Asia in any one of hundreds of modern languages, there is a chance they would understand at least some of what you were saying.  The speech, “You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!”  I would add, “And furthermore, unhand me before I unfriend you.”