Weekly Word Watch: jerk rice, okole, and snitch line
On our latest Weekly Word Watch, some newsworthy and notable nouns teach us a little Quechuan, Hawaiian, Ancient Greek, and that most exotic of languages: Canadian English.
#jamieoliver @jamieoliver #jerk I’m just wondering do you know what #Jamaican #jerk actually is? It’s not just a word you put before stuff to sell products. @levirootsmusic should do a masterclass. Your jerk Rice is not ok. This appropriation from Jamaica needs to stop.
— (((Dawn Butler MP))) (@DawnButlerBrent) August 18, 2018
Butler, a London-born daughter of Jamaican immigrants, noted that jerk rice isn’t an actual Jamaican dish, charging Oliver with misusing jerk for sales. Jerk, rather, is a marinade made of allspice and Scotch bonnet, typically rubbed on chicken before barbecuing. Oliver’s seasoning features garlic, ginger, and jalapeños for microwaved rice, aubergine, and beans.
Jerk cooking has a long and rich history: it’s said to originate from escaped African slaves who adapted indigenous cooking methods. Attested in the 18th century, the world jerk has been traced back to the Quechuan charqui, ‘dried flesh’, and source of jerky. Barbecue, for its part, comes from the Haitian Taino, barbacoa, referring to a type of wooden rack over which meat was slow-cooked.
Oliver has defended his jerk rice, saying the name nods to its Caribbean inspiration. That hasn’t stopped critics from considering him, well, a jerk. That jerk is unrelated. It begins as 1930s American English slang for a ‘fool’ or ‘worthless person’, of obscure origin but perhaps connected to jerkwater, a ‘remote or rural settlement’.
US Senator Mazie Hirono, a Democrat representing Hawaii, introduced many of us to another native word this week when she took to a Hawaiian word to pull off an effective cross-lingual euphemism.
Hirono cancelled a meeting with Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, after Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, implicated the president in a crime. She explained her motivation in a tweet:
I have cancelled my meeting with Judge Kavanaugh. @realDonaldTrump, who is an unindicted co-conspirator in a criminal matter, does not deserve the courtesy of a meeting with his nominee—purposely selected to protect, as we say in Hawaii, his own okole.
— Senator Mazie Hirono (@maziehirono) August 22, 2018
Okole, pronounced roughly like oh-koh-lay, is a Hawaiian word ‘bum’ but with the force of ass or arse. Indeed, Ulukau, a digital resource of native Hawaiian reference material, notes that okole is considered less polite than lemu, or ‘anus’ or ‘buttocks’.
By ‘protecting his own okole’, Hirono was referring to statements Kavanaugh has made that presidents should be immune from prosecution and investigation.
While okole may be new to many political observers, the word has been borrowed into Hawaiian regional English since at least the 1930s. Some visitors to Hawaii may be tempted to cry Okole maluna! when downing a drink, a calque translation of ‘bottoms up!’ Saying that around Hawaiians, however, might get you the kind of looks jerk rice elicits from Jamaicans.
Meanwhile in Canadian politics, ever overshadowed by its southern neighbour, the Ontario government recently rolled back a 2015 sexual education curriculum updated to include topics such as gender identity and sexting. And controversial premier Doug Ford warned this week of consequences to educators who don’t comply.
Parents who suspect educators aren’t complying can file complaints on a new website or call a teacher’s watchdog office. Many critics, however, are calling these portals a snitch line. A snitch line is hotline or other communication means set up so people can anonymously report suspected wrongdoing. The term has been thrown at other policies or proposals in recent years in Canada, dealing with everything from tax fraud to Muslim headwear.
Snitch line is largely a Canadianism, as far the evidence shows, and is attested since at least 1993 in a Canadian House of Commons debate, though recorded in a 1992 US labor relations journal.
A snitch, however, as a derogatory term for an ‘informer’ is British English – and older than you might expect. The noun is recorded Francis Grose’s famed Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by 1785 while slang lexicographer Jonathon Green finds evidence for the verb as early as 1718. Its initial sense, speaking of Michael Cohen, was ‘to turn King’s or Queen’s evidence’, or ‘give information in court against one’s partners in order to receive a less severe punishment’.
In the 17th century, snitch is recorded to mean ‘nose’ or ‘a flick on the nose’, suggesting snitch may have originally meant ‘sticking one’s nose in another’s business’. This might make snitch what’s called phonaesthemes, or a set of sounds with a particular semantic association: snack, snicker, snout, sneeze, and sniffle, for instance, all deal with the mouth and nose, their sn- the particular phonaestheme.
Jerk rice, okole, snitch line: why can’t we all just get along? Scientists think that hominins, or early human ancestors, did, at least.
Paleontologists published findings this week that a 90,000-year-old piece of bone belonged to a young girl whose mother was a Neanderthal and father was a Denisovan, a type of hominin discovered in 2010. The girl marks the first evidence for actual offspring of interbreeding between the distant relatives of humans, something scientists have long thought was the case.
Speaking to National Geographic, one biologist, Richard Green, memorably remarked of the bone sample: ‘It’s heterozygous out the wazoo’.
Wazoo isn’t a technical term; it means ‘buttocks’, or okole. But heterozygous is. It means ‘having two different alleles [variants forms] of a particular gene or genes’, the condition of which is called heterozygosity. It’s mouthful, letter-ful, and brain-ful, but heterozygosity essentially means, here, that the ancient child was genetically diverse, comprising the DNA of two species – a hybrid hominid.
Heterozygote itself isn’t etymologically heterozygous, as it were, joining two Greek words. Heteros means ‘other’ or ‘different’, as in heterosexual, while zygote, or a fertilized ovum, is from the Greek zygotos, ‘yoked’ (think joined together). A syzygy, if you want to add yet more high-powered Scrabble words to your arsenal, also features the ‘yoked’ root and used in astronomy for celestial conjunctions or oppositions.