Dear Word Detective: I read the following in a 2010 review of a Stieg Larsson novel: “Readers in Grenada … are going to steups when they get to page 12 in … The Girl Who Played With Fire.” “Going to steups”? I’ve tried and tried to make sense of this as a typo, nada. I gather it means something like having conniptions, since the writer goes on and on about the flora of Grenada and the apparent trajectory of a hurricane. I should also mention that the review appears to be in “Trinidad and Tobago Newsday.” (And having mentioned Grenada, I should give a shout to Kirani James.) If you can make sense of this, I’d be really glad to hear it. — Charles.
Kirani who? See? I told you I didn’t watch the Olympics. (Kirani James is, of course, the remarkable young Grenadian sprinter who just won Grenada’s first gold medal at the Olympics.) I’ve actually been thinking that maybe I should pay a little attention to sports after all. You know those old WWII movies where they trip up a German spy pretending to be a GI by asking him who plays third base for the Dodgers? If I ever have to prove my loyalty by naming five NFL teams, I’m toast.
“Steups”? It’s weird. Like you, I can’t shake the impulse to try to fix what looks like a typo to some deep part of my brain. “Setups”? “Stups”? “Stoop”? Part of the cognitive problem I have with “steups” is that sentence you found uses it as a verb (“to steups”), and there aren’t very many English verbs that end in a single “s.” Furthermore, a search of the Oxford English Dictionary shows that there is no common English word containing the sequence “steu,” apart from derivatives of Louis Pasteur’s name (e.g., “pasteurization”), a couple of weird biological terms, and “Steuben” used attributively to mean a product of that glass-maker.
Long story short, it turns out that “steups” is a Caribbean English slang word, Caribbean English being not one language per se, but dozens of dialects of English spoken throughout the Caribbean and on the eastern coast of Central America. Closely tracking the history of the region, Caribbean English generally follows British English in style and spelling, but includes words influenced by African languages as well as by Spanish.
In the case of “steups,” however, the source is not any particular language but the apparently universal human capacity for expressing disapproval or exasperation. According to wiwords.com, an online dictionary of West Indian terms, “steups” is onomatopoeic, or echoic, in origin; it’s an imitation of “A sucking noise made with the tongue pressed against the teeth. It is usually an expression of annoyance, frustration, or contempt.” Other regional terms for the same action are “cheups” and “kiss teet” (“kissing one’s teeth”). In standard English this action would probably correspond to “clucking” (“Betty’s grandmother clucked her disapproval when she announced her engagement to the local anarchist”), after the sound a hen uses to keep her chicks in line. There must be something fairly shocking on page 12.
Interestingly, the comments on the “steups” page at wiwords.com indicate that “steups” (and perhaps its variants) is also widely used to mean “Kiss my behind!” (to put it euphemistically). Perhaps this use as an imprecation originally developed as a retort to one too many “steups” from a stuffy relative.