A duppy is a ghost. Sometimes we use the word to mean a stupid person, or an ugly person, but mostly we mean ghost. Duppies feature prominently in our folklore, the most famous of them being Annie Palmer the white witch of Rose Hall.
Then there is a whole legion of them that arose from the wreckage of the train crash at Kendal in 1957. My mother tells this story of one of her cousins- and part of the story is this study in genealogy, for she digresses by habit, and she loves to trace our family tree. But anyway the cousin in question was a taxi driver in Kingston in the 1950s and he told her that one day he picked up a lady and carried her to a certain upscale address. Upon arrival the lady asked him to wait while she went inside to get the fare. He waited ten minutes and Miss Lady did not return so he honked, at which time someone came out to talk to him. Well you can imagine the rest... no body had entered the house, and the description mom's cousin gave of the woman suited someone from that house who had died in Kendal crash.
My mother has lots of duppy stories up her sleeve, even now I enjoy listening to them. My favourite ones are of the pranks she played on her scaredy cat older sister when they were children. Like the time she and Aunt Pearlie were coming from Hillsborough late one moonlight night, and mom stopped under a cotton tree (a favourite hangout spot for duppies) and started screaming in terror. Aunt Pearlie grabbed on to her and nearly went mad with fright, screaming louder and more frantically than her wicked sister. Mom had to stop the nonesense when she realized that Aunt Pearlie might squeeze the life out of her.
Just so you know, man duppy and woman duppy do not laugh the same way. Man duppy laugh 'ha-ha', and woman duppy laugh 'cre keh keng keng'. So says Ernie Smith (I believe). I wanted to find you that song, but only found this one:
If you see a menacing duppy, the way to scare the daylights out of him is to hurl a slew of expletives at him, and I don't mean the mild ones like 'dyam' or 'rahtid'. You have to give him the hard core ones like 'bumbo-rass claat' and he will flee in terror. There are easier, less profane ways of scaring a duppy; like wearing your clothes on the wrong side, or wearing red underwear.
So you see, duppies aren't all powerful, they have to choose the weak and the helpless, otherwise they might find themselves spooked out of their wits. That's why in Jamaica we say "Duppy know who fi frighten".
But when we use that saying we really aren't talking about ghosts. We are talkning about bullies or anyone who would exploit others if given the chance, such as in the case of a supervisor intimidating an employee who doesn't know his rights, an onlooker might say "duppy really know who if frighten, eenh?"