“Calypso is my weapon,” sings the Mighty Gaby from Barbados. Dr Richard Allsopp a Caribbean linguist would have probably agreed with the sentiment but not totally with the lexicon. “No way you would have an African spelling such as calypso,” he contends.
At the heart of the issue is the origin of the word describing a type of musical expression that is undoubtedly Caribbean. The popular word used to describe the music by many Caribbean people is kaiso or a variant of that word. Calypso, says Allsopp is a recent appendage introduced by foreign journalists in the region during World War II.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary and Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, tend to corroborate Allsopp, who was director of the Caribbean Lexicography Project, which worked on publishing the landmark Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage which the former University of the West Indies lecturer compiled.
The Oxford says calypso is a usually spontaneous topical West Indian song in African rhythm (see main article, ‘Kaiso – The First Caribbean World Music’) . It says the origin of the use of the word is 20th Century and unattributable. Webster’s is more erudite in its explanation which starts with the definition of Calypso (capital c) as: “a sea nymph in Homer’s Odyssey who kept Odysseus seven years on the island of Ogygia.” The second definition is that of “an improvised ballad usually satirizing current events in a style originating in the West Indies.
Allsop says ka isue is from the Efik language of the Efik people of west coast Africa who were “important middlemen in the slave trade.” Among them, the grio was granted poetic licence to criticise, mock or praise the ruling class particularly when a new chief was to be chosen.
“It (ka isue) was a phrase used to back up the linguister, the person who had authority to back a son (over the sons of other mothers in a polygamous community) and make fun and jokes about the other rivals,” he said. “Other people were not allowed to do this so they enjoyed the pikong and urged ‘ka isue, go on go forward’.”
Across the sea to the Caribbean, the tradition was transferred to situations where the captives were making a joke at the masters at times of carnival, at Christmastime or even on the street away from the plantations, said Allsop.
In the transfer, the word was spelt kaiso. “It’s amazing how well this has been preserved,” he remarked. Similar expressions under different names also existed in North and South America, he said.
The popularization of kaiso was boosted by carnivals. The mocking was usually done by a group of women who ridiculed other women including the planters’ wives. In the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, these women were known as chantwell, the English rendering of the French chantrelle. Eventually the term was shifted to the men who sang and the crowd would provide the chorus even as they shouted “Kaiso!”
As to the phonetics, Dr Allsopp notes that in the Virgin Islands, kariso is the name given to certain folk songs, while in old Trinidad with the French influence, the creole spelling was callisseau.
“It was English journalists about the 1930s and 40s who spelt it calypso. It has nothing to do with us,” he said. “Calypso with a capital C is a nymph from Greek mythology who allegedly lured sailors. This is in their (the journalists’) heads.
“We would never have spelt it like that.”