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I puzzled over the origin of this word for years.  “A braskitul am!” was my old friend Belinda Mason-John’s (gleeful) favourite expression; she meant that she had shunned or ignored some poor soul.  Clearly braskitul was made from two words, “brass” and “kettle,” but what that had to do with dissing someone, I couldn’t fathom.  In my own Krio dictionary (1971), I glossed it as “snub, not acknowledge,” while in their Krio-English Dictionary (1980), Fyle & Jones have “take no notice of, refuse to countenance,” and in his Krio English Dictionary (2006), Bai-Sheka has “ignore deliberately.”  In his Dictionary of Sierra Leone Krio (1986), Berry has “to give respect to,” a wrong interpretation of his sample sentence: “’e nor brass-kettle me en’ a big pass am.”

Recently, and keeping in mind that a kitul in Krio is a large pot as well as a ti-kitul, I realized its origin while going through old books looking for obsolete Krio words. In Adam Afzelius’ Sierra Leone Journal 1795-1796 on pages 25-27, I came across references to a “brass kettle.” There, he describes the traditional “trial by ordeal,” which involves the accused party’s drinking a poisonous mixture called “red water,” which could make him ill, kill him, or have no effect at all, depending upon his guilt or innocence. The “kettle” was the pot “used to boil bark for red water,” the bark being kyanwud (camwood). His description is as follows:

The red water should be taken on an empty stomach [and] watch is always given to the accused the night previous to the trial, in order to prevent him from eating any thing, that may promote the throwing up of the water by vomiting . . . the ground was neatly covered with Plantain or Banana Leaves, on which were placed the bark, that was to be used, a large brass kettle filled with clean water, a straight new cut stake, a whisk or wisp . . . and a large Poloon or wooden Mortar . . . the bark being sufficiently pounded, it was taken out of the Poloon and put into the Brass Kettle above mentioned . . . After he had finished, the man who had before pounded the bark and put it into the Brass Kettle, began to take it up out of the water.

Clearly a person apprehended and secured on suspicion of having committed some crime, would have been shunned by the onlookers and probably thought him guilty even before the trial. 

Afzelius’ word poloon never survived in Krio. It is from the Portuguese pilão “pestle,” (mata-tik or mata-pɛnsul), but in the old books, as here, it was only used to mean “mortar” (mata, mata-odo). 

Krio gɛ nɔf Podogi wɔd, biyol dis wan kekerebu.

Krio kekerebu (sometimes kekrebu) is one of the oldest words in the language. It first turned up in a letter written from Accra in 1682 by Ralph Hassell: “[the] wedges were lost, the canoe being kickadevood” (Law, 1997: 190) and was recorded later by Atkins at Cape Mesurado in 1721 on the Liberian coast as “kickatavoo ‘Killed, or Dead’,” which he listed as a “Negrish” word along with several others (1737: 60). In the same work (p. 58), he included the sentence You didee, you kicatavoo “if you eat [a fetish bundle], you die presently.” The item turns up again in Grose (1785: n.p.), with the notation “dead; Negro word,” and again in Hotten (1864: 164), who has “Kickeraboo: Dead. A West Indian negro’s phrase . . .‘kick the bucket’, of which phrase it is a corruption.” Rankin (1834: 306, 154) refers to “the Krikkery-boo or Dance of Death of the Kroomen;” the same, the “danse de guerre,” was also reported by Jeannest (1883: 151-152). Fyle & Jones (1980: 170) list it as meaning “come to grief, fall into trouble, fail in an attempt.”

During the late 1800s, the father of Creole Studies, Hugo Schuchardt, was in correspondence with a great number of missionaries, district commissioners, and others around the creole-speaking world collecting material for his series of mono­graphs on these languages, Kreolische Studien (1882-91). In 1883, he exchanged letters with the missionary H.E Utz, who was then stationed in Tobago; among the materials on the local creole which Utz collected for Schuchardt was included Kecrebu “to be dead or to lose everything,” probably interpreted in the latter sense by Utz from the proverb he included which contained the word: Junker tail better more an Kecrebu (“it is better to have the tail cut off than to die”, i.e., “it is better to let something go than to lose everything”). A few years later, Lentzner (1892: 96) also included the word, with Hotten’s proposed etymology, in his dictionary of “mixed languages.” Schuchardt himself did not refer to this item until 1914, in a footnote to his study of Saramaccan (1914:118), where he spells it kekrebu and repeats the information sent to him by Utz, adding that its origin is to be found in the English phrase “kick the bucket”. He also included the variant kickeraboo, which he attributes to Harrison, who has kick the bucket “to die” (1884: 267—although the form kickeraboo doesn’t in fact occur in that source), and cockerapeak which, he says, ac­cording to Burton (1883), means “daybreak; at cock’s crow”.

The word has also been reported from Trinidad, in a newspaper col­umn by one “Jerry” in the Trinidad Spectator for 27th October 1845 (Winer 1985), where a conversation between two Creoles includes the line “little bit agen a ben da go kick-e-re-boo dis time” (i.e., “a bit more and this time I would have died”). The same newspaper (20th August 1845) made refer­ence to “Sarah Loney folk,” that is, the Sierra Leonean free labor force which was coming into Trinidad at this time, and it is not unlikely that the word was an introduction from their own language, Krio. Ian Robertson also reports (personal communication) that he came across the word with the form kickezeboo in a Dutch text on Guyana; since the Dutch left the area at the turn of the nineteenth century, we must assume a very early date for the transmittal of the item to coastal South America. While Harrison doesn’t include the creole form in his own study of Black English, the forms kickeraboo and kickaraboo are given by Nathan as being nineteenth century words in that dialect, which, he says, are “the equivalent of the modern colloquialism ‘kicking the bucket’” (1962: 27).

I concluded in an earlier discussion of this item (Hancock 1971: 402) that it is unlikely that the word is ultimately from kick the bucket; the reverse is probably the case, through folk-etymologizing, an opinion also shared by Dillard (1975: 13). Sawyerr, in his 1940 study of Krio origins, considers the source to be Kru, possibly on the basis of Atkins’ citation, and to mean “a dance of death”, one of the meanings also listed for the word by Berry in his Krio dictionary (1966: K 7): “kekrebu (n) dance of death; dem day dance kekrebu for dem granny way die. (v) (1) to fail (especially an exam) (2) to suffer misfortune; a done kekrebu.”

In Fyle and Jones’ Krio dictionary (1980: 170), both kekrebu and kekerebu are listed. At kekrebu the following is given: “LLH (Twi kekrebu “die, wither, meet trouble”) n. come to grief, fall into trouble, fail in an attempt.”

Here they are verbs, not nouns, although the word can also function as a noun, for example in constructions such as that given by Berry. The origin does not seem to be in Twi, although Ashanti has krekre and kyekyere, one of the meanings of which is “to become congealed” (Chri­staller 1933: 234, 289). In Gã, however, the word kekre means “dry, stiff”, and bu means “become, befall, turn out badly” (Akrofi and Botchey 1965, 75). Note, too, that in Gullah, bu means “dead”, and in Yoruba, with its huge impact upon Krio, kekere means “small, insignificant”. Neither of the two Klao (Kru) speakers who were asked about this word were familiar with it, nor were speakers of Kpelle, Grebo or Bassa, languages also spoken in Liberia; Atkins’ short vocabulary, collected at Cape Mesur­ado in which this item appears, contains one or two words which bear some resemblance to Nyane Kru, such as didee “eat”, and Brinnee “white man” (cf. Usera y Alarcón 1845; see also Society of African Missionaries, n.d., Bassa has ɖi “eat,” Hobley, 1965, and Grebo has di), but the majority seem not to be from this language including, ap­parently, the item kekrebu.

REFERENCES

Akrofi, C.A., and C.L. Botchey. 1965. English-Twi-Gã Dictionary. Accra.

Atkins, John. 1737. A Voyage to Guinea, Brasil and the West Indies. London.

Berry, Jack. 1966. A Dictionary of Sierra Leone Krio. Evanston: Northwestern

Uni­versity.

Burton, Richard. 1985. Wit and wisdom from West Africa. London: Tinsley.

Christaller, J.G. 1933. Dictionary of the Asante and Fante Languages. Basel:

Evangelical Missionary Society.

Dillard, J.L. 1975. All-American English. New York: Random.

Fyle, C., and E. Jones. 1980. A Krio-English Dictionary. Oxford UP.

Grose, Francis. 1785. A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. London.

Hancock, Ian. 1971. A Study of the Sources and Development of the

Lexicon of Sierra Leone Krio. Unpublished doctoral thesis, U. of London.

Hancock, Ian, 1985. “On the anglophone creole item kek(e)rebu,” American

Speech, 60(3): 281-283.

Harrison, James. 1884. “Negro English.” Anglia 7: 232-79.

Hobley, June, 1965. Bassa-English, English-Bassa Dictionary.  Liberia Inland

Mission.

Hotten, John C. 1864. The Slang Dictionary. London.

Jeannest, Charles, 1883.  Quatre Années au Congo.  Paris: Charpentier.

Lentzner, K.A. 1892. Dictionary of the Slang English of Australia, and of Some

Mixed Languages. Leipzig: E. Karras Verlag.

Nathan, Hans. 1962. Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy.

Norman: Oklahoma UP.

Sawyerr, Harry. 1940. The Sierra Leone Patois. Master’s thesis, Durham U.

Schuchardt, Hugo. 1914. Die Sprache der Saramakkaneger in Surinam.

Amsterdam: Johannes Mueller.

Society of African Missionaries. n.d. Kru Grammar. Tenafly, New Jersey.

Thompson, Hanne-Ruth & Momoh Taziff Koroma, 2014. Krio Dictionary and

Phrasebook. New York: Hippocrene Books.

Usera y Alarcón, G. 1845. Ensayo Gramatical del Idioma de la Raza Africana de

Nano, por Otro Nombre Cruman. Madrid: Sociedad Literaria y Tipografica.

Winer, Lise. Forthcoming. “Two Trinidad Spectator texts from 1845.” English World Wide.

Ian Hancock FRSA OBE (xulaj@utexas.edu) is retired and writing a book about Krio called Speaking Littorally.  He lives in Buda, Texas, with his wife and five children.

4 Comments

  • Posted September 27, 2021
    by Farouk Sesay

    Interesting piece ,however Poloon in Themneh language refers to a Cotton tree and in most communities the Poloon tree is used as a spot for perfomance of rituals

  • Posted September 27, 2021
    by Dr. Ian F. Hancock

    Very true, Farouk, ʌ-poloŋ means cotton tree, but Afzelius was using the word to mean a mortar. Is it possible that we have two different but similar-sounding words here, one Themne and one Portuguese? Or (and I don’t know this), could a mortar be made from the trunk of a cotton tree?
    Ian

  • Posted September 28, 2021
    by Velma Mitchell

    Fascinating word study. When given a chance, Krio never ceases to amaze and delight. Thank you Dr. Hancock!

  • Posted October 18, 2021
    by Madonna Johnson

    Very enlightening piece Dr Hancock. Thank you.

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