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The term 'calypso' arose after the art form had been in existence for sometime. Initially the majority of songs were sung in patois. However, during the turn of the century when the people of Trinidad were struggling with the fading of the French patois and the emerging dominance of English, many terms were simply anglicized. Thus the language of the music began to change and, according to some, so too did its name. There are in fact several theories and controversies surrounding the origin of the word. This discussion will focus on those versions outlined in the works of Daniel Crowley, Raymond Quevedo, Errol Hill and Hollis Liverpool.

Nobody seriously contends that it has anything to do with the Calypso of Greek mythology, though one commentator, after reviewing the various possible origins and conceding that "the name Calypso is a misnomer and bears no direct relation whatever to the folk music of Trinidad itself," does venture to add, "[…] it is still not certain that the English or Americans on coming to Trinidad and hearing the expression used for the folk music and feeling its enchanting effects did not misinterpret the word to mean ‘Calypso’ of Greek mythology."

The following are the main theories put forward over the years on the origins of the term Calypso:

  • It came from the Carib word 'carieto,' meaning a joyous song, which itself evolved into 'cariso'.
  • It originated from the French patois word 'carrousseaux' (which was originally from the archaic French word 'carrousse') meaning a drinking party or festivity. This word was later transformed into other variants, namely cariso, calyso and cayiso.
  • It may have come from the Venezuelan/Spanish word 'caliso' which referred to a topical local song. ‘Caliso' has a similar meaning in St. Lucia;
  • The word 'careso' also refers to a topical song but mainly in the Virgin Islands;
  • It was derived from the West African (Hausa) term 'kaiso', itself a corruption of 'kaito', an expression of approval and encouragement similar to 'bravo'.

This last version is the derivation that has found the most favour. Hence we find Raymond Quevedo, the knowledgeable calypsonian of the early half of the 20th century, claiming that ‘kaiso’ was the first term he knew. It then evolved into 'calypso' via 'caliso,' 'rouso' and 'wouso'. This last term 'kaiso' has also survived alongside its derivation 'calypso' which, according to Errol Hill, first appeared as the term denoting the Trinidad Carnival song, only in 1900. ‘Kaiso’ is still used to show appreciation for a calypso that is well composed and executed. Thus Quevedo’s statement about 'kaiso' being used to describe the song when sung, as well as a means of expressing ecstatic satisfaction over what was, in the opinion of the audience, a particularly excellent 'kaiso', is still valid today.

The dual existence of an original word alongside its etymological derivative 'kaiso' is nothing new. Hence 'kaiso', in addition to its main role as indicator of appreciation and approval, is at times also used interchangeably for 'calypso'. In such a case, it has the connotation of 'genuine' calypso. Recently, there has been in some circles a favouring of the term 'kaisonian' to designate one who sings ‘genuine' calypsos, as opposed to 'calypsonian' for the run-of-the-mill. Be that as it may, the term 'calypso' as we know it is now well entrenched in contemporary vocabulary as evidenced by its definition in The Concise Oxford Dictionary:

  • Calypso – a kind of West Indian music or song in syncopated African rhythm, typically with words improvised on a topical theme.

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