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Jamaican slang not for 'polite company'

Ford's patois curse words pack some punch

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TORONTO -- The words are slurred and drawled, trailing off in the middle of a barely coherent tirade.

But the Jamaican swear words peppering the latest controversial video of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford would pack a much more definite punch if uttered in everyday conversation.

Jamaican Canadians familiar with the patois spoken on their native island say the words "bumbaclot" and "rassclot" have the potential to be extremely offensive in some contexts.

They said the latest Ford video, which depicts the scandal-plagued mayor hurling the expletives, might well be one of those situations.

It's difficult to pin down specifics in the video, which was taken late Monday night in a northwest Toronto restaurant.

Ford, who admitted he had been drinking the night the video was shot, references both Toronto's police chief and unspecific surveillance efforts as part of a minute-long rant. Jamaican obscenities feature in the video more than once, though never in direct reference to a clear subject.

Those words, however, are offensive in the vast majority of situations in which they're commonly used, experts said.

Bob Arthurs, a retired school teacher and current president of the Jamaican Canadian Association Alberta, said "bumbaclot" and "rassclot" have become common slang in Jamaica's poorer communities. They are essentially synonyms that equate to hurling a particularly vehement f-bomb, he added.

"If you met someone on the street you didn't know and you said, 'you're a bumbaclot,' that could be a very trying situation for you," Arthurs said in a telephone interview from Calgary.

Both words have their origins in African languages imported from eras when Jamaica was a hotbed of slavery, said York University Jamaican Creole professor Clive Forrester.

"Bumbo," meaning vagina in some languages, was combined with the word "klaat" or cloth, he said, adding the final result would translate to calling someone a sanitary napkin.

As it was adopted into Jamaican dialect, however, the word took on other connotations and even had serious ramifications for those who used it, he said.

"This is simply a straight-up curse word," Forrester wrote in an email. "Not suitable for use in polite company or in the presence of children, and performers have been fined in the past for using the word on stage."

Junior Ford, owner of a business in Toronto's Jamaican community, said direct English equivalents for the words are difficult to pin down.

Apart from being a run-of-the-mill swear word, he said "bumbaclot" and "rassclot" are sometimes used as low-level threats when people are spoiling for a fight.

"It is aggressive. Sometimes you're saying 'f off"' or 'f you.' It's almost the same thing," he said.

Both Forrester and Arthurs said more positive interpretations of the words do exist, adding context is everything. Arthurs said either term becomes socially acceptable when used as an exclamation of surprise rather than as a description of an event or person.

"You see a nice girl, you could use that phrase as well. You suddenly found out you won the lottery, you could use that very same phrase and exclaim," Arthurs said.

Ford's uses of the slang, which came under fire from Toronto city council members on Tuesday, do not appear to fall into this category.

Arthurs interpreted Ford's statements to pertain to an unknown situation, while Forrester suggested proper context is impossible to pin down without knowing who the mayor was speaking to.

When questioned about the video on Tuesday, Ford defended his right to drink on his own time and said he did not think the language he used was offensive.

"It's how I speak with some of my friends," he said.

After viewing the video multiple times, Arthurs said that last claim, at least, rings true.

"It wasn't too bad at all," he said of the mayor's attempt at patois. "Obviously he's got Jamaican friends and he's been around Jamaicans quite a bit, because that's exactly how Jamaicans on the street would describe the situation."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 23, 2014 A4

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Updated on Thursday, January 23, 2014 at 7:16 AM CST: Replaces photo, adds video

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