What does Wagwan mean?

Wagwan, sometimes written as Wha gwan, or Wha gwaan is one of the most famous expressions in Jamaican Patois, apart from Bumbaclot.

Saying Wagwan” is equivalent to saying the standard English phrase “what’s going on?”, in a Jamaican dialect.

Spreading through popular culture, influenced by Reggae music and Rastafaris, as well as a bigger Jamaican diaspora in the UK, it became a popular slang expression.

“Wagwan” is used as a colloquial greeting, and is mainly used between friends. If asked “wagwan”, you could respond with “nagwan”, meaning “nothing’s going on”.

Some argue that a white person saying “wagwan” is cultural appropriation, but white users disagree and claim these accusations are exaggerating.


What's the origin of Wagwan?

“Wagwan” originates from Jamaican Patois, which is considered as an English-based Caribbean creole language.

The language started developing in the late 17th century, with English colonisers bringing West African slaves to their plantations.

This intermixing of of cultures resulted in the development of an English based creole in the subsequent centuries, that is famous for its distinctive pronunciation and grammar.

“Wagwan” developed from the English “What’s going on?” turning into “What go on?” in Patois, eventually contracting into “Wagwan”.

Following the 1960’s, Jamaicans began migrating to the United Kingdom, bringing their culture and language with them, which resulted in a “London Jamaican” developing on the streets of Britain in the 1980’s and 90’s.

This influence, culminating in music and general pop culture, resulted in the popularisation of phrases such as “Wagwan” among native Brits, which spawned a distinct subculture: the Chavs.

Spread & Usage

How did Wagwan spread?

“Wagwan” is often associated with reggae- and hip-hop music, as well as the Jamaican Rastafari culture, Bob Marley and Jazz cigarette.

It is particularly used in South and South Eastern parts of London, both by Jamaicans and young Brits, although there is controversy among people, whether it is cultural appropriation for white people to attempt to speak Jamaican Patois.

The expression was further propagated by the Chav-satire of Sacha Baron Cohen, who also spread phrases like Booyakasha.

In 2015, president Barack Obama greeted the Jamaicans attending the University of the West Indies by saying “Wagwan Jamaica?”, positively surprising the students.

Today, “Wagwan” may be encountered in movies, series, YouTube videos, however it is still the most prevalent in song lyrics, especially in genres popular in England, such as drum and bass and UK drill.

External resources

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