Krio bosin (or bozin) means “boatswain,” and a bosin pɛp came to mean (besides “bosun’s pipe”), a “police whistle,” although this last seems to have disappeared from today’s Krio. The word also means a “swollen scrotum (a hydrocele),” and in the combination bɛlɛ bosin, it means “hernia.”
I thought, then, that the word bosin in bɛlɛ bosin would have the same source, namely boatswain; but try as I might, I could not find the remotest connection between “boatswains” and “hernias.” There is another possibly navally-related word blɔkɔs or blɔkos (from “block house,” a fortified structure to house ammunitions”) that means “scrotum,” which sort of makes biological sense, but it turns out that there are two different bosuns in Krio, with two quite different origins—one for the petty officer on a ship, the other for the painful affliction.
With its latter meaning, it comes from a regional British dialect word (in Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary (EDD) but not the Oxford English Dictionary); in Lancashire, Cheshire and elsewhere in the northern midlands bauson and bawsyn (and other variant spellings) means “big, fat, swollen.” A “bauson pig” is one with a hanging belly—compare also Scots and Wiltshire bausy “large, corpulent, a big, fat person.” (EDD I: 192).
It also turns up in the United States: in North Carolina and Virginia, bussen means “affected with rupture or hernia” (Green) and bussened means “ruptured” (Eliason). The Dictionary of American Regional English (I: 479) compares these with EDD bussen-bellied and gives bussen as the past participle of burst (variants in EDD include bawsen, bursen, etc., and as a verb to mean “over-feed, fill to excess, hence bawsen-bellied (etc.) of animals, ruptured” (I: 455).
Although Krio is chɔkɔp with words from regional British dialects, brought in with the early white residents living on the Rice Coast and Freetown, bosin didn’t arrive that way. Because it is pronounced bosin and not bɔsin, it was almost certainly introduced by the Jamaican Maroons who arrived in Sierra Leone in 1800.
The Dictionary of Jamaican English (DJE) has buosan “a piece cut off a yam that goes on swelling . . . a bodily deformity in which a member swells out of shape,” and buosn “the part of a yellow yam which grows after the foot has been cut,” and traces the word to Twi abosí “a species of yam.” It is assumed in that dictionary to be from “boatswain” applied to the yam as an honorific title and compares Jamaican “commander coco” and “duke coco.” An informant for the entry described the growth of a yam which, as it grew, “spread sideways and became round, like the protuberance in hernia. In fact, he regarded boasun as the word for hernia” (DJE II: 491). Farquharson (2012: 252) also says buosn means “hernia,” and that it has been folk-etymologized as coming from “boatswain,” and believes that its origin is the African word abosí (in p.c.). In her Jamaican grammar, Beryl Bailey (1962) has buosn only to mean“a species of yam.”
It is found elsewhere in the Caribbean with the Jamaican pronunciation: Bahamian Creole has boassin “a swelling in the scrotum caused by straining; a hernia” (Holm & Shilling 1982: 23).
Guyanese Creole son “swollen testicles” (Rickford 1978: 26) may not be from bauson, but is the word “son,” i.e. an extra “child,” cf. “calabash” and “goadi (gourd)” for the same affliction.
So why Jamaican? Because the /uo/ diphthong in Jamaican words (i.e. in buosan) becomes [o] in words introduced from that language into Krio, and not [ɔ]; if it had been directly from English, it would be *[bɔsin] in Krio, cf. bɔs “burst” (but from “bust”).
Since the Jamaican diphthong /uo/ is unexpected, given the English source (which would have predicted *[baasin], it may well reflect convergence with the Twi abosí “yam.”
Krio has words with the [o] vowel where in the original English it is [ɔ], but only when it comes before /r/: bo ‘bore,’ do ‘door,’ flo ‘floor,’ fo ‘four,’ fos ‘force,’glori ‘glory,’ korɔs ‘chorus,’kos ‘coarse,’ omɔnga “whoremonger,’ po ‘poor,’ pot ‘report,’ pota ‘porter,’ so ‘sore,’soa ‘soar,’ sod ‘sword.’ The one apparent exception, mol ‘maul,’ is southwest English dialect moul, mowl, which already had the [o] sound, and not the [ɔ].
These Krio words with the [o] vowel may have been introduced with the Nova Scotians who arrived in 1792, and who spoke African American English and Gullah, in which the same pronunciations are found. It is not a feature of any British dialect. The association of hernias with yams never made it to Sierra Leone, but you can’t be too careful: i lɛk sef, y’all, yu yams wet, na fɔ kɔba ram kwik wan. Adinɔ yu neba na tifman; yu nɔ wan lɛ i kɛr yu bosin go om wit am.
Bailey, Beryl Loftman, 1962. Language Guide to Jamaica. New York: Research
Institute for the Study of Man.
Cassidy, Frederic G. & R. B. LePage, 1967. Dictionary of Jamaican English.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Eliason, Norman E., 1854. Tarheel Talk. An historical study of the English language
in North Carolina to 1860. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Farquharson, Joseph Tito, 2012.The African Lexis in Jamaican: Its Linguistic and
Sociohistorical Significance. Doctoral Thesis, Mona: University of the West Indies.
Green, Bennett W., 1899. Word Book of Virginia Folk-Speech. Richmond: Jones
Hall, Joan H., ed., 1985.Dictionary of American Regional English. Cambridge: The
President and Fellows of Harvard College. In six vols.
Holm, John, & Allison Shilling, 1982. Dictionary of Bahamian English. Cold
Spring: Lexik House.
Rickford, John, 1978. A Festival of Guyanese Words. Georgetown: University of
Wright, Joseph, ed., 1905. The English Dialect Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University
Press. In six vols.
Ian Hancock FRSA OBE (firstname.lastname@example.org) is retired and writing a book about Krio called Speaking Littorally. He lives in Buda, Texas, with his wife and five children.
*A bosun looks after the hull and deck of the vessel, making sure these parts of the ship, as well as her anchors, windlasses, and other such equipment, are well maintained.