The taxonomy of the steups


I am a steupser. I never noticed that until I stayed back working after hours one afternoon in the summer job at my father’s office. After yet another sucking sound echoed through the empty open-plan workspace, the one other co-worker still there made the observation.

I’m not quite aware of the diasporic range of the steups. I am sure it’s of West African linguistic origin – maybe broader – and that it did not survive the journey very far north into the Americas. While it’s a feature of African American speech, Afro-Caribbean speakers use it far more often. I also assume it has preserved most of its original meaning through space and time. But I know, for instance, that there’s an African steups that culminates in a click that did not make it here.

I never paid too much attention to the steups. That is until about five years ago, when Twitter amplified my curiosity about its sociolinguistics. Some French authorities, it seemed, were undertaking new efforts to ban steupsing in schools – an already existing practice there – three years before they would debate banning mobile phones, and a decade after they’d banned Muslim headscarves in classrooms.

Around the same time the justice minister, of Caribbean origin, was asked in a television interview for a one-word comment about xenophobe Marine Le Pen. It seems she let one go – before covering her mouth.

Minister Taubira’s intuitive response to her public “tchip” (as written French renders it) indicates there’s some aspect of rudeness or
impolitesse to the expression. Still, how could one ban a steups? The schools brouhaha seemed either white people discovering something they didn’t understand; or black people with new authority practising cultural self-hate.

A steups is a gesture that doesn’t always carry the identical meaning – like a click of the fingers or a clap.

I discovered during that 2015 nine-days media cycle that Barbadian man of letters and Combermere schoolmaster Frank Collymore had been quite curious half a century ago about the steups, and compiled his own taxonomy of its various meanings, which he notes are shaped both by the length of the sound, how it’s articulated, and what other facial and body language accompanies it. Collymore had at least eight kinds of steups.

I recognise many of them. And that a steups often accompanies a facial expression that signifies its meaning.

The steups I use most often is the steups of frustration or mild annoyance, the equivalent of a sigh. The office steups. This resembles, but isn’t quite identical to Collymore’s steups of “amused tolerance…in retort to some(thing) absurd,” an oral shrug. And it’s probably what Collymore frames as a “self-admonitory” expression, when the steupser has done something of which he has no occasion to be proud; but I don’t recognise anything that specific in my steupsing.

There is, of course, the steups of amusement, accompanied by a smile. And I recognise the steups of disappointment, a longer sound with the shoulders falling. It’s not quite equivalent to Collymore’s “sorrowful” steups, used to rue something, which may be repeated and accompanied by head-shaking.

What the Parisian educators seem to have missed most is that not every steups targets someone.

The steups of “disdain,” with which they were likely concerned, Collymore notes, is accompanied by the raising of an eyebrow. But even then, there’s a difference between an authority figure’s steups of dismissal, often with a cooya mouth, and a range of expressions of backchat in a subordinate’s steups.

I believe there is the steups of disbelief (sometimes, one might imagine, at the other’s steups), which often ends with the mouth open and eyes widened.

Apart from Collymore’s steups of disdain, he recognises a steups of disgust (which I don’t think requires a target), in which the eyebrows are almost closed and, I would add, the nose is wrinkled (skin up).

I don’t quite get a few of Collymore’s categories – eg the “offensive and abusive” steups; and the “provocative” steups, a violence-provoking combination steups that is disdainful, eyebrows raised, disgusted, eyebrows closed, and offensive/abusive steups.

A steups can certainly be used in the context of provocation. It can also be uttered to signify on someone without addressing them directly. All of us should recognise the domestic violence steups, in which typically a female partner derisively mocks her partner’s masculinity.

Collymore also made the case in the Barbados Advocate piece where he published his catalogue of steupses that a steups is not a mere word but a whole language. And I’ve heard the case made that one test of Caribbean authenticity is to hold a steups for six seconds.

Let’s say that there is far much more to explore sociolinguistically in a steups.


"The taxonomy of the steups"

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