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This page will feature a selection of Jamaican proverbs along with translations into standard English and explanations.
Translation: Finger never says "look here," he says "look yonder."
Translation: If you put your hand in the devils mouth, take it out carefully.
Translation: The peacock hides his foot when he hears about his tail.
Translation: Do not wait until the drum beats before you grind your axe.
Translation: If you are afraid of the eye, you will never eat the head.
Translation: It is not for the want of fat that the nightingale's legs stand so.
Proverb: Ebry dyay debble help teef; wan dyah Gad wi help watchman.
Proverb: Cowad man kip soun' bone
Translation: The rooster was killed by hsi own mouth. (The butcher would not have known where to find him if he had not opened his mouth to crow.)
Translation: The dog does not howl if he has a bone
Translation: If you do not smash an ant, it is impossible for you to find its guts.
Explanation: It is only when you are closely involved with some persons that you are able to really know them.
If one is not provoked, it is impossible to know the extent of his fury.
Translation: Old fire sticks are easily re-kindled.
Explanation: It is much easier to light coals which have been burnt before, than to get a fire going with fresh logs. Similarly, if a relationship has previously existed between two people, it is easier to rekindle the flames of love than to start a new relationship with someone else.
Translation: The chicken, unaware of the danger posed by the hovering hawk, makes merry.
Explanation: Danger can lurk in some of the most unexpected places. We should temper, therefore, our most light-hearted moments with a little sobriety.
Translation: You cannot sit on the back of the cow and curse the skin of the cow.
Explanation: We should not disparage others. Worse yet, we should never be ungrateful to, or disdainful of, those who help us.
Translation: You can shake a man's hand, but you cannot shake his heart.
Explanation: It is impossible to detect what a person has in his mind toward you through mere physical contact. Do not, therefore, take people, their opinions, or their feelings for granted.
Translation: There is a fire blowing at the tail of the mouse, but he believes he is feeling the effects of a cooling breeze.
Explanation: Many times, in our naivete, we remain unaware of impending danger until it actually overtakes us. Also, the foolhardy blithely interpret the signs of danger to mean that all is well.
Translation: When you find yourself in trouble, a child's shirt fits you.
Explanation: It is ridiculous to contemplate the sight of a full-grown man fitting comfortably into a child's shirt. However, one can readily understand that when we are in trouble, we appreciate whatever help we can get to extricate ourselves. This is so, even if under normal circumstances we would have thought such help woefully inadequate.
Translation: What went wrong in the morning cannot be remedied in the evening.
Explanation: It is unwise to spend valuable time worrying about those problems we cannot solve. Also it makes no sense to take precautions after we carelessly allowed a situation to get out of hand.
Translation: A thick blanket causes a man to sleep late.
Explanation: An over-abundance of luxuries causes one to become complacent, and to take life's blessings for granted.
Translation: What tastes sweet in the mouth burns the belly.
Explanation: Some things are not good for us, although they appear to be exactly what we want. We should be cautious about what we latch on to, lest we cause ourselves much pain and embarassment.
Translation: I came here to drink milk, not to count cows.
Explanation: Mind your own business. Enjoy what you are entitled to. Don't worry about details which do not concern you.
Translation: If you spit into the sky, it falls into your eye.
Explanation: What you do to, or wish for others, could eventually be the cause of your own downfall. Be careful of how you treat others.
Translation: If you cannot catch Quaku (Harry), yu ketch im shut.
Explanation: It is not always possible to get everything you want. Be satisfied with what little you have, until you are able to get all you want. Having caught Quako's shirt, you are all the closer to catching him.
Translation: A patient man rides donkey.
Explanation: It is customary that travellers in a great hurry are loath to go via the slow but sure donkey. For them, a horse, used to galloping at terrific speeds for sustained periods seems a more logical choice. However, the donkey, although much slower, eventually gets to its journey's end. Similarly, we must exercise great pateience in order to reach our goals.
Translation: If you want everything you see, you will eventually lose all.
Explanation: Take just what you can comfortably manage, rather than attempt to grab everything for yourself, lest you destroy all in the process.
Translation: There is trouble in the business, and Anancy takes it home.
Explanation: Anancy, the folk hero of West African origin, is never satisfied with leaving things in their proper place. He sometimes takes home the spoils of his foraging, many times to the unhappiness of his family. What does not concern us we should leave strictly alone.
Translation: He who wants it desperately cannot get it; he who gets it easily does not want it or appreciate it.
Explanation: Be thankful for the blessings that come to you always realising that many of the things we take for granted are luxuries to others.
Translation: The new broom sweeps clean, but the old broom knows all the corners.
Explanation: We should strive for a happy blend between the old and the new, combining the freshness of the new with the valuable experience of the old.
Translation: Mischief comes by the pound and goes by the ounce.
Explanation: Mischief makers can stir up a tremendous amount of trouble with only a few words or maybe one action. The effects of this can be difficult to minimize. Let us not be mischief-makers. We could hurt ourselves and others irreparably.
Translation: One pound of fretting cannot repay one ounce of debts.
Explanation: Problems are not solved by worrying. The time spent fretting could be more gainfully spent on considering workable alternatives and solutions.
Translation: Willful waste brings woeful want.
Explanation: Don't willfully waste what you have or you could end up betterly regretting what you wasted when you do find yourself in need.
Translation: Do not purchase a pussycat in a bag.
Explanation: Examine carefully whatever you purchase or accept from someone else. In matters of the head and heart, do not be quick to accept a person as the "genuine article" without a thorough investigation.
Translation: Allow one jackass (donkey) to bray at a time.
Explanation: It is difficult to see the merit in other persons' ideas if everybody attempts to speak at the same time. Also, if someone is speaking foolishly, avoid adding to the confusion.
Translation: A penny-halfpenny (1 1/2d) buys trouble, one hundred pounds (£100) cannot pay for it.
Explanation: Little blunders can cause us to find ourselves in situations so complex that we cannot extricate ourselves.
Translation: Long run, short catch.
Explanation: It may take a long while for you to be caught and punished for wrong-doing, but you will be caught one day.
Translation: One hand washes the other.
Explanation: One good turn deserves another.
Translation: The more you look, the less you will see.
Explanation: It is impossible to know every single detail about any matter. Also, the more you find out, the less you know.
Translation: No matter how drunk the cockroach becomes, he never makes the mistake of walking past the yard of the fowl.
Explanation: The cockroach is considered to be a delicacy for fowls. In the interest of self-preservation, cockroach is always reluctant to go past any area where he may be easily caught by a fowl. For humans, the same should apply, self-preservation being the first law of the species.
Translation: The hog/pig eats whatever its mind gives it for [or wants].
Explanation: To each, his own.
Translation: Bowl goes, calabash comes.
Explanation: It was very common occurence in traditional Jamaican life to see covered dishes carrying some delicious meal being borne by a child, and bound for some neighbour's home. It was also customary, although certainly not mandatory, for the bearer to return with something for the sender, perhaps in a packy (calabash scraped and used as a bowl).
Also, one good turn deserves another.
Translation: One finger alone cannot kill lice.
Explanation: Co-operation is necessary for projects involving more than one person.
Translation: If you spread your bed hard, you must lie on a hard bed.
Explanation: You must accept responsibility for your actions, and whatever you sow, you will surely reap.
Translation: The mug is not broken, therefore the coffee is not thrown away (or wasted).
Explanation: Even in the most difficult of times, if total devastation has not occurred, one should count his/her blessings.
Do not blow simple matters out of proportion.
Translation: Every dog has his day, and every cat has his 4 o'clock.
Explanation: We should not behave as if we are better than others, or allow our position in life to blind us to the fact that tremendous opportunities can be given to those persons whom we would least expect to reap these benefits. ("Your day will come.")
Translation: When a meagre plantain wants to die, it shoots.
Explanation: After a plantain tree shoots and bears a bunch of the familiar fruit, it has ended its useful life, and dies thereafter. When we are no longer concerned about the safety of our persons, the preservation of our good character of job, or family, then we are to apt to behave stupidly.
Translation: When the cocoa (cacao) ripens, it bursts.
Explanation: It is easy to identify the intentions of an individual by his/her actions.
Translation: When a man's belly is filled, he breaks the pot.
Explanation: When man is satisfied, he often forgets what hunger or need is, and will be indifferent to the sources of his repast or succour, until he again finds himself in need.
Translation: What the goat does, the kid follows.
Explanation: Children absorb behavioural cues from their parents and other significant adults in their lives. We should set good examples for our children.
Translation: You never see smoke without fire.
Explanation: Sometimes, actions that appear to be trivial, are actually indications of some deep-rooted resentment, or of trouble or romance brewing.
Translation: Take what you can get until you can get what you want.
Explanation: Every opportunity, well used, can be a stepping stone to realization of your ultimate goals.
Translation: If you are unable to get turkey, then you must be satisfied with John Crow.
Explanation: No well-thinking Jamaican would be "caught dead" with a portion of crow's meat in his plate. However, this proverb simply advises us to be prepared to accept situations that may not be to our liking, for peace sake. Sometimes second-best is not so bad after all.
Translation: A good friend is better than money in the pocket.
Explanation: No matter how valuable our material possessions may be to us, a good friend, especially in times of trouble, is always proven to be of much more worth. We should treasure our friends, not only recognizing them when we are in need.
Translation: Before allowing good food to spoil, allow the belly to burst.
Explanation: Taken literally, this proverb could see the demise of many persons who are unable to control their appetite. The moral behind this old saying, however, is that one should make every good use of life's opportunities; also, never waste or discard today that which you or someone else may be able to use tomorrow.
Translation: Too many rats never dug a good hole.
Explanation: A good job/project/activity could be spoilt if there are too many individuals attempting to carry out the same task. Ideally, work should be delegated, and one should avoid frustrating those who can really do the work, by gently re-deploying those who are time-wasters.
Translation: Self-praise is no recommendation.
Explanation: The Bible advises "Let another man praise thee, and not thine own lips." (Proverbs) If the only recommendations of our own worth are pronounced by ourselves, then it is certain that such pronunciations are mere vanity. One should not be too quick to "sound his own trumpet."
Translation: Not everything that comes from above is a blessing.
Explanation: Enjoy those blessings which come from above, but do not be misled by deceivers who use their superior positions to dispossess the unfortunate.
Translation: When the poor man gets up, he becomes trouble to the world.
Explanation: See meaning for proverb above. Also, the elevation of someone who used to be disdained or sneered at by others, could be cause for much disturbance in the minds of those who did not wish him well.
Proverb: Cry-cry pickney neber hab him right
Proverb: Nanny goat neber scratch him back till him see wall
Proverb: Rocka ‘tone a ribba bottom no feel sun hot.
Proverb: Ebry day da fishing day, but ebry day no fe catch fish.
Proverb: Hungry hungry and full full no trabel same pass. (Anderson, Cundall)
Proverb: Shoes alone know if stocking hab hole.
Proverb: John Crow neber make house till rain come.
Proverb: Stranger no know where de deep water in de pass.
Proverb: John Crow tink him own pickney white.
Proverbs: Darg among doctor, cockroach among shaver. (Anderson, Cundall)
Proverb: If you can’ get turkey you must sati’fy wid John Crow. (Anderson, Cundall)
Updated July 2015
NATIONAL LIBRARY OF JAMAICA