Why do our older generations address nurses as “bee see“? Why do we call someone without roles or assignments “lobo“? Find out more…
- Original Meaning: A type of shooting weapon (English)
- Local Meaning: To order someone to do a task
A term probably first used in the military, it is now frequently used in local context to mean an order being directed at someone, like an arrow, to carry out a task, usually against his wishes.
- Original Meaning: Bun knife (Hokkien)
- Alternate Meaning: To tattle
The phrase also refers to sabotage, to betray secrets or “tell” on others. The long bun knife is possibly used to describe the backstabbing.
- Original Meaning: Young ladies (Missy, English)
- Local Meaning: Nurses
During the colonial days, young ladies were referred as Missy by the British, probably derived from “Miss”.
This applied to the young nurses working in hospitals, where the doctors would address them politely as “Missy” and the local patients, particularly the Malays, would pick it up and call them “Misi” as well.
The local Chinese, speaking mostly in dialects during that era, might have pronounced it in the Hokkien dialect and called the nurses, young or old, as “bisi” (pronounced “bee see“).
Catch No Ball
- Original Meaning: Nil
- Local Meaning: Don’t understand
Singaporeans like to use the phrase “catch no ball” or liak bo kiu (Hokkien) as a way to express his lack of understanding of certain topic.
It is another way of saying: The ball is in my court, but I fail to catch it (It has been explained to me, but I fail to understand it).
- Original Meaning: Free from anxiety or responsibility (carefree, English)
- Local Meaning: Bit actors/Extras
Referring to bit actors and actresses, this unique local phrase is borrowed from Cantonese term of 咖喱啡, which is possibly derived from English word “carefree”, since these supporting roles in a film have few lines or little responsibilities.
The other meaning could be because these bit actors and actresses are usually provided with meals (curry rice and coffee), hence the Cantonese term.
- Original Meaning: Hurry up (English)
- Local Meaning: Same as original meaning
Influenced by British seamen, who used “chop” or “chop-up” as a way of saying “hurried” or “quick”, the Cantonese also termed “chop-chop” as hurry up. The term appeared as early as 1834 in English newspaper articles in Canton.
When the westerners visited China in the 17th century, they were amazed by the nimbleness of chopsticks, thus they named them as “quick-sticks” which in turn became “chopsticks”.
The local usage of “chop-chop” goes one step further to become “chop-chop kali pok”, where kali pok is curry puff and has nothing to do with “hurry up” except that the rhymes make the whole phrase sounds phonetically, just like song-song gao Jurong (“happy-happy” “arrive at Jurong”) or ya-ya papaya (“arrogant”).
- Original Meaning: Earthenware pot used for cooking (English)
- Alternate Meaning: Total loss
While many Singaporeans love claypot rice, the word claypot is intensively borrowed by football punters as a term for “losing everything”. It is viewed as a direct opposite of “jackpot”, or “winning all”.
The logical explanation, other than both words rhyme with each other, is that a claypot breaks into pieces easily and when that happens, it represents a total loss.
- Original Meaning: Earthquake (Chinese)
- Local Meaning: NEA inspector
At the peak of street-hawkers’ peddling in Singapore during the sixties to seventies, the hygiene was the biggest concern for the NEA (National Environment Agency). NEA inspectors would go around the streets to catch unlicensed hawkers, who would be fined or had their pushcarts confiscated.
Such chases after the guilty hawkers usually resulted in chaos with toppled pushcarts and knocked-down passers-by. The scenario was like a rumbling earthquake, thus the inspectors were called di gu in Hokkien (地牛 is an ancient Chinese name for earthquake).
The sights of several chasing inspectors were also likened to that of some uncontrolled wild bulls.
- Original Meaning: Skiving (jiak zua, Hokkien)
- Alternate Meaning: Same as original meaning
Snake is viewed as a lazy animal by the Chinese, hence jiak zua or “eat snake” refers to the act of skiving.
- Original Meaning: Reversing of a boat (go astern, English)
- Local Meaning: Reversing of any vehicles
Go stun is a corrupted version of the English phrase “go astern” which means to move a boat backwards from the currents or winds.
The local borrowed it and described it to the reversing of any vehicles on the road.
The phrase might have evolved from “go astern” to “go stern” and finally “go stun”.
- Original Meaning: Marble, nut (gundu in Malay)/Fat, ball, bomb (kuntu in Tamil)
- Local Meaning: Idiotic
“Goondu” is a Singlish word, derived either from Malay or Tamil to express something that is hard and heavy, which indirectly suggests a stupid person.
Goondu and guru, which sound alike, are regularly used in Singapore in referring to an idiot and expert.
- Original Meaning: Energy/Strength wasting (“eat strength” in Hokkien)
- Local Meaning: In trouble
Originally meant to describe a job or task that consumes a lot of energy or strength, but over the time, it has evolved to mean “in trouble” or simply “oh no!”
- Original Meaning: Leg (Malay)
- Alternate Meaning: Buddy
Since “leg” in Chinese (脚) has the same pronunciation as 角 (角色, character), the local Chinese borrowed the Malay word to describe partner, buddy or close friend, such as mahjong kaki or lunch kaki.
- Original Meaning: Potato (kentang, Malay)
- Alternate Meaning: Westernised Singaporeans
The term “kantang” is used to mock westernised Singaporeans who converses only in English and cannot speak their mother tongues properly.
It is probably derived from the view that potato is a staple food for westerners. Rice, on the other hand, is a staple food for East and Southeast Asians.
However, the actual Malay word for potato is kentang, and “kantang” is instead adopted by most local Chinese, probably due to mispronunciation.
- Original Meaning: Gunny Sack (Malay)
- Alternate Meaning: Rag and bone man
In the old days, the rag and bone man used gunny sacks to collect the used newspapers. Since they rarely use gunny sacks nowadays, the term karung guni is used to describe the rag and bone men instead.
Karung guni men, each equipped with a horn and cart, are familiar sights in old Housing and Development Board (HDB) estates, going from floors to floors in the flats and shouting “garung guni, buay bor zua gu sa kor, ley lio dian si kee” (rag and bone, buy newspapers and old clothes, radios and televisions).
The residents will receive small amounts of payment in return of their unwanted old items.
- Original Meaning: Wood (Malay)
- Alternate Meaning: Blockhead/Buck up
Visit any football matches in Singapore and Malaysia and you’ll like hear some fans screaming “referee kayu!”. Kayu is a Malay word for “wood”, and fans like to criticise the referee as a wooden blockhead whenever he makes a controversial decision.
Jalan Kayu, which literally means wooden road, has a Chinese translation of 惹兰加由(油), which 加油 itself means “to buck up”, so “referee kayu” can also mean asking the pressurised referee to buck up.
- Original Meaning: Offshore platform for fishing (Malay)
- Alternate Meaning: Match-fixing
Fans in football-crazed countries of Singapore and Malaysia will often describe matches with dubious results as kelong. The term kelong is a Malay word which refers to a wooden offshore platform used by fishermen.
Knowing very well that fish will escape in faulty nets, the fishermen will carefully mend their nets before casting into the sea. Likewise, a bribed football player will attempt to throw the match away, and thus “kelong” is used locally to describe the guilty player or the dubious match.
- Original Meaning: New Zealand wingless bird (English)
- Local Meaning: To polish
Every National Service (NS) personnel will not be unfamiliar with the round polish container he receives in military training. Filled with black boot polish, the black container is easily recognised by a kiwi on its cover.
The trademark brand, established in 1906 by Scottish-Australian manufacturer William Ramsay, has since become the global brand in shoe polish.
Therefore, the term “Kiwi” is used locally as a substitute for polish.
- Original Meaning: Hole (Malay)
- Alternate Meaning: Opportunity
Originally the Malay word for hole, it is borrowed by the local Chinese to refer to an opportunity, usually in businesses or deals. It has been used so intensively that a person with many sources of business opportunities is called a lobang king.
“Kang tow” in Hokkien (工头) is similar to lobang. It refers to the supervisors working at the harbours or construction sites, where the Chinese labourers would ask him for jobs.
- Original Meaning: Left Out of Battle Order (English)
- Alternate Meaning: Soldier without assignment/Lazy person
The term “lobo” is originated from the military, which stands for “left out of battle order”. It is likely to be derived from LOB, a concept in World War I, which referred to “left out of battle”. In order to prevent a complete wipeout by the enemies, the second-in-command and several officers and men were left behind as LOB.
However, the term is now a derogatory term to describe soldiers without posts or assignments, or simply, a lazy person.
- Original Meaning: Cooking (Malay)
- Alternate Meaning: Playing toys
Little girls love to pretend to cook with toys utensils, but over the time, “masak-masak” is generally used to describe children playing with their toys.
It can also be used as a reference to describe a serious matter, as in this is not “masak-masak” (this is not a play thing or this is no laughing matter).
- Original Meaning: Half-lion, half-fish mascot of Singapore
- Alternate Meaning: Vomiting
Popularised in recent years, this word is now used to describe the vomiting of a drunk person, where his throwing up is similar to that of the water spouting by the actual Merlion at the Singapore River.
On The Ball
- Original Meaning: Alert (English)
- Local Meaning: Hardworking, enthusiastic
The phrase “on the ball” originated from baseball which it became popular in the 19th century. The batter has to be alert and keep his eyes on the ball in order to complete a successful strike.
The phrase is now used locally to describe a hardworking or even an over enthusiastic person, especially during the military training. “On” is also the short form for “on the ball”.
- Original Meaning: Nil
- Local Meaning: Deserving (in a mocking way)
“Or bi” is the short form for “or bi good”, which means very good in a sarcastic manner.
It is extracted from an old local nursery rhyme “or bi good, ang moh jiak choo loot”, where ang moh refers to a Caucasian, jiak is eat or chew and choo loot is cheroot or cigar. It is used to gloat at someone’s misfortune. Again, the “ang moh jiak choo loot” has no particular meaning except that “loot” rhymes with “good”.
- Original Meaning: Discussion (Malay)
- Alternate Meaning: Conspire
It means discussion or an agreement of a plan in Malay, but in Singlish, it is used to describe a conspiracy or a plot, in a more negative aspect.
Pang Buay Ki
- Original Meaning: Being stood up (Hong Kong)
- Local Meaning: Same as original meaning
This phrase (放飞机 in Chinese) is similar to 放鸽子, where the former literally means “put aeroplane” while the latter means “put pigeon”. Both refer as being stood up in an appointment or date.
“Put aeroplane” origins from Hong Kong during its first ever airplane show. The angry audience was disappointed after the event was postponed for three days, hence the phrase of being stood up.
As for “put pigeon”, it was a scam that was popular in old Shanghai, where female scammers would seduce their victims and got away with their valuables and belongings.
- Original Meaning: Go to hell (Hong Kong)
- Local Meaning: Bankrupt
“Pok gai” is a curse used frequently during quarrels in Hong Kong. The Chinese translation 仆街 literally means die on the street.
This derogatory term, however, is used commonly in Singapore by hardcore gamblers as an indication that he has lost a lot of money.
Orh… Han Tze
- Original Meaning: Nil
- Local Meaning: Mocking at someone who doesn’t understand
“Han tze”, which means sweet potato in Hokkien, is used to mock at a person who doesn’t understand a topic but pretends to understand. When he goes “orh…”, the one mocking at him will reply “orh… han tze”.
“Orh” sounds like yam in Hokkien, hence sweet potato is used as a counter-argument.
- Original Meaning: Intermediary (French)
- Local Meaning: Stockbroker
Although the origin of the word is French, and features in the historical Paris stock exchange, the common usage of this word now only restricts in the Singapore and Kuala Lumpur stock exchanges.
It first appeared in the rubber and tin trading sectors in Malaya during the colonial days.
- Original Meaning: Sabotage (English)
- Local Meaning: Same as original meaning
This English word originates from the French word sabot in the 19th century, which means poor quality work from an unskillful worker.
In Singlish, it is shortened to “sabo”, which can be used in playing a practical joke on others, deliberate harm and damage or intentional obstruction. It is frequently used in the military, and the one who likes to “sabo” is called the “sabo king”.
Shag or Shack
- Original Meaning: Sexual intercourse (English)
- Local Meaning: Tired
“Shag” is considered an offensive slang for sexual intercourse in British context, whereas in Singapore the word is being used without containing any sexual meaning. Many, especially military personnel, like to use “shag” or “shagged out” to express extreme fatigue.
- Original Meaning: Great (shauk, Punjabi)
- Local Meaning: Pleasure
It is one of the most-used local phrases, which can be used to describe anything that provides extreme pleasure, especially food.
- Original Meaning: Once (Malay)
- Alternate Meaning: Suddenly and unexpectedly
One of the favourite phrases used by Singaporeans, it is used to describe something that may happen unexpectedly. The term is often accompanied with a word of caution.
- Original Meaning: Leper (Hokkien)
- Alternate Meaning: Lucky
“Taiko” is a Hokkien term to describe the condition of a person with leprosy. As medical advances, the chances of contracting the disease is lower, thus anyone who suffers from it is deemed extremely unlucky.
Hence, “taiko” in modern context is a sarcastic way of saying that a person is very lucky.
- Original Meaning: Fanciful story (a cock and bull story, English)
- Local Meaning: Talk nonsense, rubbish
“A cock and bull story” was first used in England in the 18th century to describe fanciful stories told in the rivaling coaching inns The Cock and The Bull.
Locally, it means talking nonsense. A longer version “talk cock sing song” refers to get together for a casual chat.
- Original Meaning: My goodness (Hong Kong)
- Local Meaning: Same as original meaning
Popularised in the mid-nineties by Stephen Chow’s comedies, this term (我靠 in Chinese translation) describes displeasure, surprise or heck care.
In local context, it is the same as “walau” or “wah piang”.
- Original Meaning: Theatre, Performance (Javanese)
- Local Meaning: To pretend in front of others
Although the word originally means Indonesian shadow puppet performance, it is also being used to refer to local Chinese opera performance on stage.
In Singlish, “wayang” has a negative aspect, referring to a person who pretends to be hardworking, or a nice guy, in front of others.
Below is a list of the most common Singlish words and phrases that are influenced by Malay, Hokkien and Cantonese. Words with sexual, racist and vulgar meanings are not included from the list. Local food and beverages, and names of local places are also excluded.
Published: 21 August 2011
Updated: 12 September 2016
steady steady pui pi pi! thanks for the list…
Our Singapore-styled Mandarin is also very much influenced by Hokkien and Malay…
To me, there isn’t a need for us to change our style according to the standard Chinese, because this is our culture, and what we are familiar with for many generations
巴刹 refers to “market”, derived from Malay word “pasar” (standard: 市集/市场)
三万 refers to “summon” (traffic offence), derived from Malay word “saman” (standard: 罚单)
龙沟 refers to “drain”, directly translated from Hokkien phrase “longkau” which in turn derived from Malay word “longkang” (standard: 沟渠)
甘榜 refers to “village”, derived from Malay word “kampung” (standard: 乡村)
做工 refers to “working”, directly translated from Hokkien phrase “zhogang” (standard: 工作)
煮炒 refers to one of the stalls commonly found in Singapore kopitiams that sell noodles, fried rice and other dishes. The word is derived from Hokkien phrase “zichar“, literally means “cook and fry”
冷气 refers to “air-condition” (standard: 空凋)
按钱 refers to “cash withdrawal” (standard: 提款)
漏风 refers to “turns bad/sour (for dry food)”, derived from Hokkien phrase “lao hong” (standard: 受潮)
粥 refers to “porridge” and pronounced as zhu locally, influenced by “zok”, the Cantonese term for congee (standard: 粥 “zhou“)
An interesting one:
公司 refers to “sharing” (standard: 分享). It also means “company”. According to Baidu.com, the word 公司 originated from Confucius’ writing, referring it as a way to gather capital for operational purposes. The British East India Company was then known as 东印度公司 in Chinese in the 18th century. The Malay word “kongsi” which means “partnership” is derived from the phonetic translation of 公司. The most well-known kongsi in Singapore is Ngee Ann Kongsi (義安公司), established in 1845 by a group of Teochews.
Singlish means anything. Anything should mean the same in any language. We all need to understand each other if we only could. If we would we could get there. If you can translate that to anyother language than mine, which I just made up, then you may begin to understand. Otherwise we will all keep trying to be misunderstood which will ensure that only ourselves can be understood by us. Let’s keep language free of clique cliches and insider metaphors that nobody else can understand. Let’s talk the same language without speaking. Let’s just smile at each other as often as we can.
eh wat talking you
Yet here you are throwing random words without following any grammatical rules.
I also like that say. lol
咖喱啡 is a corrupted translation of the term from Cantonese into Mandarin Chinese. In Cantonese, it doesn’t not imply curry/coffee at all. The “carefree” explanation is probably more credible.
放飞机 literally means “let fly of a plane.” Similarly, “let fly of a pigeon.” There is no “put” meaning here.
Ai Wan 哀怨[ai yuan] (missing chinese context in list)
Lu 汝[ru] (ancient chinese referal of “you”)
Du 箸[zhu] (hashi in japanese) refering to chopsticks
Bawu is of malay context if not wrong…. not of hokkien origin
Ge Yan 过瘾[guo yin] seems to be the hokkien slanged for the chinese term, since both
characters have identical meaning in hokkien’s “ge” and “yan”
Satki 煞气 [sha qi] sounds like the slanged words in hokkien
i think the “kelong” explanation is dubious. according to my father ‘kelong’ was originally the term for the net that fishermen used to catch crabs and fish with, not the platform (as in your post – it’s now synonymous because that’s where the nets were deployed). fish just swim right into it, bait or not. the idea of accusing the referee or match of being “kelong” is to allege the existence of a pre-planned setup, just like the fishing net being setup in advance. obviously, the betrayed team are the fish. i don’t think it has anything to do with net-mending.
For those interested in the dialects, some interesting words of Teochew:
1. ji leng (吉龙: literally means lucky dragon) – lizard
2. lao kun (老君: literally means old gentleman) – doctor
3. wang lye (旺来: literally means prosperity to arrive) – pineapple
4. sua ba or ba lye (山芭 or 芭内: literally means forested area or countryside) – a rural place
5. chu bi (趣味: literally means interesting) – cute, funny or friendly
6. lao ya (老爷: literally means old master) – lousy, poor quality, or refers to deity
7. yao gui (饿鬼: literally means hungry ghost) – greedy, cheapskate
8. jiak tor (吃桌: literally means eat table) – attend a banquet (usually a wedding banquet)
9. beh chia lou (马车路: literally means horse car road) – refers to roads (used by horse carriages in the past)
I think the word for pineapple is ‘黄梨’ though. ‘旺来’ is just a pun. The same is true in Cantonese.
I never knew the Chinese characters for “chu bi” is “趣味”. Interestingly, the same characters 趣味 means “hobby / pastime” in Japanese (pronounced “shumi”).
“趣味” is only “Chu Bi” in Teochew/Hokkien. In Mandarin it’s “Qu Wei”. Not surprised the Japanese pronounciation would be something really close like “Shumi”.
Pingback: Speaking Singlish « Singapore My Heart Out
lol wat talking u all my singlish best lor i ah lian your problem?
Pun Lo Ti – Give bread – In taxi driver term, four passenger, four different locations.
“Ba wu” is mentioned here with its origin in Chinese. It is in fact derived from the Malay word for “smell”, which is “bau”.
Alamak! I thought I knew my Singlish….
But I’ve never heard of Bao Toh!?
Can someone help me out? Do you use it today? Or perhaps it was used when policeman wear short pants?
learn more about singlish here…
go stun… isn’t it gostan as in reverse in malay? how did the origins come from english?
came from the nautical term “go astern”. After corruption, became “go stan”.
Similarly the term “go head” was originally “go ahead”
si beh tok kong lah!
(Photo from Shin Min Daily News advert)
Cute pictorial guide on simple Hokkien
Shiok probably a sexual derivation from the word “shook” or shaken
Why we call loan sharks as ah long
Walao… I like your post! Hubby called me kiasu early today and I haven’t heard of that word for a very long time (living in States turned me to ang-mo liao!). I miss home!
What’s the origin of satay, one of our favourite local delights?
There was a funny theory of how the name was derived. During the early days when the Chinese Hokkien immigrants arrived at Malaya, they brought along a “barbecue” technique of cooking the meats using sticks. When asked by the natives, the Chinese replied “sar tae“, meaning “three pieces” of meat in Hokkien. It later became “satay”.
This theory wasn’t convincing anyway.
Another theory was that the early Arab merchants introduced kebab to Malaya, and the natives modeled after it and “invented” the food which they named it as “sate”. The origin of “sate” was unknown; it might be a phonetic interpretation of the English word “steak”.
In any case, satay has now become one of Singapore’s signature food. Its delicious sauce was also used in other dished, such as satay bee hoon.
Reblogged this on Panda Journal and commented:
A well written blog that tells this generation but the future generations the Singapore we have been neglecting all these time and to cherish it more.
Reblogged this on 琳; and commented:
This is too funny!
tok cai tau should be 剁菜头. also, 萝卜菜头 (robert caitau) refers to the guy who got 剁, hence the phrase “carrothead”.
i have always heard doctor as lo-kun. possibly 佬 instead of 老?
脚 (kha) and 角 (kak) don’t seem related to each other, let alone kaki.
you probably mean curry favour, not flavour, for 三脚. haha.
i think ma is a compound of 不也 (m-ya) like mai (不爱) and buay (无会).
char bor might be better written as 早姆.
i have always heard “boh tua boh suay” (小 = sio but 细 = suay)
chin chai might be better written 亲裁 — as in, if your relative is your judge, then he will be more lenient?
sian should be 闲.
sai kang is 屎工 (typo?)
hao lian = 候练 ??? (as in time + experienced = arrogant?? it’s as difficult to rep as dai ji and gin na)
bo hiu might be 无復 (no answer)
bo chap = 无插
lim peh = 您父 (your father)
dua ki hor lan: dua = 带 although i am not sure where ‘dua’ got the meaning of ‘sabo’
i’ve heard of “ai pee ai chee ai tua liap nee” as the more vulgar version
you might want to add penyet to senget
lok kok = 落谷 ?? (fallen into the valley –> rundown?)
nua = 赖
Nice! Thanks for your contributions… Shall do an update and overhaul of the Singlish list in near future 😉
Shouldn’t the “dua” in “dua ki hor lan” be 弹? I always thought 弹去荷兰 is being ‘sold to Holland’, meaning bluffed into something.
ahhh yes. i think 弹 is the correct word for “sabo”, in the sense of “rebounding back (on promises)”.
Correct me if I’m wrong on “DUA KI HOR LAN” = Bounce/Flick/Deceive to Holland. Those were the days of the British Empire and Dutch Empire sea trade race during the 1800’s to early 1900’s. When British Empire using the scaring rumors that once you go to the Dutch Empire, there is going to be a point of no return (hell/slavery). Therefore, whenever it means. “Bring you to HOR LAN” = Bring you to hell or Bluff you big time.
I think taiko started with table tennis. There is always that lucky shot that hits the corner of the table and considered a point. The way the ball bounce off looks like a deformed shot And thus people started calling them taiko shot.. and it evolve into taiko = lucky.
I’ve always felt that the explanation for “kaki” being from the Malay doesn’t make any sense at all. What’s a leg (or horns on a head) got to do with people you hang out with? However, if you think about the Hokkien (Teochew?) expression “ka ki nang”「自己人」, it makes much more sense because “ka ki nang” means “our [type of] people” or “our kindred souls” which likely would be the people you’d hang out with. Hence “mahjong kaki” and “makan kaki” would make a lot more sense as “the people you’d hang out with to play mahjong” and “the people you hang out with to eat together” respectively, albeit mangled over the years into the Malay pronunciation of “kaki” since we are in the Malay peninsula (the Malays might have heard it and thought that it sounded like “leg” in Malay without further analyzing why it was being used).
Our lingo is bloody rojak. It is fun, but keep English formed in proper phases and grammatically correct. For example, oh dear, very jia lat, can you solve it? Any lobang? Our business is not doing very well this month; Find you own kaki, alrite, etc etcetera. The angmo will appreciate it, this is local slang used in Singapore; they need to blend in to understand it. Walla, Cheerio.
Hi Singlish experts :)and Thx Remember Singapore for the post- I wanted to pls ask your feedback on an idea.
Im wanting to run a website advertising to appeal to Singaporeans travelling to another country say Sydney Australia – Would one of these phrases appeal to a Singaporean as a company name – or just it just not “work” at all lol?
Sydney liao mah
Sydney liao ma
what do you think team – which is the best
it should be relevant and grammatically correct (i am very allergic to bad singlish).
the first 5 suggestions are not proper singlish….
Reblogged this on ramyunnie and commented:
I’m reblogging SG related in order to survive in my hometown T.T
You forgot ‘Ali Baba’. Meaning to take something away without permission. (As to steal)
The rise of Singlish
07 August 2015
BBC News, Singapore
Singapore’s government has long insisted that everyone in the island nation should speak English – it’s the language used in schools, at work, and in government. But in practice many people speak a hybrid language that can leave visitors completely baffled – Singlish.
Singapore is known for its efficiency and Singlish is no different – it’s colourful and snappy.
You don’t have a coffee – you “lim kopi”. And if someone asks you to join them for a meal but you’ve already had dinner, you simply say: “Eat already.”
Singlish first emerged when Singapore gained independence 50 years ago, and decided that English should be the common language for all its different races.
That was the plan. It worked out slightly differently though, as the various ethnic groups began infusing English with other words and grammar. English became the official language, but Singlish became the language of the street.
Repeated Speak Good English campaigns, drummed into Singaporeans in schools and in the media, have had only limited success. Singlish has not only shrugged off these attacks, it has thrived.
It’s been documented in a dictionary and studied by linguists. And it has been immortalised in popular culture. Take for example the 1991 comedy rap song Why U So Like Dat? by musician Siva Choy, which dramatises an argument between two schoolchildren.
“I always give you chocolate, I give you my Tic Tac, but now you got a Kit Kat, you never give me back!” sings Choy.
“Oh why you so like dat ah? Eh why you so like dat?”
Over time, Speak Good English campaigns have evolved from trying to stamp out Singlish, to accepting that properly spoken English and Singlish can peacefully co-exist. The language has even come to be seen as part of Singaporean identity and heritage – it appears in advertising campaigns for SG50, the big celebration of Singapore’s Jubilee Year, and will feature on floats in Saturday’s National Day Parade.
Among ordinary Singaporeans, Singlish tends to be spoken in informal situations – with friends and family, taking a taxi or buying groceries. It indicates casual intimacy. English, on the other hand, is used for formal situations – at school, or at work, especially when meeting strangers or clients.
Over time, it has become a social marker – someone who can effectively switch between the two languages is perceived to be more educated and of a higher social status than someone who can only speak Singlish.
Someone who can only speak English, and not Singlish, meanwhile, may be seen as a bit posh, or worse – not a real Singaporean.
So how do you speak it?
The grammar mirrors Mandarin or Malay, the indigenous language of Singapore, by doing away with most prepositions, verb conjugations, and plural words, while its vocabulary reflects the broad range of Singapore’s immigrant roots. Besides borrowing from Malay, it also has words from Hokkien and Cantonese (from southern China), and Tamil from southern India.
Having coffee, “lim kopi”, is a combination of the Hokkien word for drink, “lim”, and the Malay word for coffee, “kopi”.
A person who worries a lot is a kancheong spider – “kancheong” is from the Cantonese word for anxious, and the term evokes the image of a panicked spider scurrying around.
If a situation is intolerable, you may exclaim, “Buay tahan!” The word “buay” is Hokkien for cannot, and “tahan” is Malay for tolerate.
But Singaporeans have also appropriated English words and turned them into something else.
To reverse is to “gostan”, from the nautical term “go astern” – a reminder that Singapore was once a British port.
“Whack” means to attack someone, and transposing that to Singapore’s favourite pastime, eating, it can also mean ravenously attacking or digging into a hearty meal.
Singlish also has an array of words borrowed from Mandarin and other Chinese languages (not just Cantonese and Hokkien), or simply invented, that don’t mean anything on their own, but dramatically alter the tone of what you’re saying when tacked on to the end of a sentence.
“I got the cat lah,” is an assurance that you have the cat. “I got the cat meh?” is the puzzled realisation that you may have lost it.
Some Singlish phrases are also used in Malaysia but others are unique to Singapore.
To “merlion” is to vomit profusely, and refers to Singapore’s national icon, the Merlion, a half-fish half-lion statue that continuously spouts water.
Thanks partly to social media, Singlish, which used to only be a spoken language, is now starting to evolve in written form with spelling that reflects how the words are pronounced.
“Like that” can be “liddat.”
“Don’t play play” – a phrase popularised by 1990s sitcom character Phua Chu Kang, meaning roughly “don’t mess around with me” – is more accurately written as “Donch pray pray”.
Confused? Donch get kancheong.
Spend enough time in Singapore and you sure get it lah.
Can somebody explain how the term “grago” came about?
Shiok! 19 Singlish items added to the Oxford English Dictionary
12 May 2016
The Straits Times
Who needs the Queen’s English when you can use Singlish?
In its March quarterly update, the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has added 19 new “Singapore English” items in its lexicon.
There are new senses of common English words, loanwords from Chinese and Malay, and formations in English that are only used in Singapore, OED said on its website.
The examples it cited: “blur”, meaning slow in understanding, “ang moh” (a light-skinned person, esp. of Western origin or descent; a Caucasian), “shiok” (cool, great; delicious, superb), “sabo” (to harm, inconvenience, or make trouble for; to trick, play a prank on) and “HDB” (a public housing estate).
OED also noted that terms like “lepak” (to loiter aimlessly or idly; to loaf, relax, hang out) and “teh tarik” (sweet tea with milk) are characteristics of both Singapore and Malaysian English.
“Wet market” (a market for the sale of fresh meat, fish, and produce), on the other hand, is used all over South-east Asia.
It is also now considered acceptable to use “wah”, which OED says is used – especially at the beginning of a sentence – to express admiration, encouragement, delight and surprise, among others.
Other notable words highlighting Singapore’s rich food heritage also made it to the list, which include “hawker centre” and iconic local dishes “char siu” and “chilli crab”.
Interestingly, OED also included “Chinese helicopter”, which it defines as a derogatory term for a Singaporean whose schooling was conducted in Mandarin Chinese and who has limited knowledge of English.
Several Singlish words had previously made it into the OED’s online version, which launched in March 2000. “Lah” and “sinseh” were already included in OED’s debut, while “kiasu” made it to the big time in March 2007.
On Feb 11 last year, “kiasu” was also selected as the OED’s Word of the Day.
Here’s the full 19-item list. For their individual definitions, click here.
“The dictionary itself defined “Chinese helicopter” as being a derogatory term for a Singaporean whose schooling was conducted in Mandarin Chinese and who has limited knowledge of English.”
“Ms Tan, who now lives in Canada, said the term “had long degenerated into a label that equated Chinese-educated Singaporeans with inferior quality and low status in society. It was blatantly intended to belittle, humiliate and demean someone on the basis of his less fluent command of English”.
She added: ” ‘Chinese helicopter’ is unequivocally a painful reminder of their long and difficult struggle to find their rightful place and dignity in the Singapore society. Fortunately, by the 1980s, this highly derisive term had mostly lapsed into disuse with the closure of Chinese schools. Not many younger generation Singaporeans have heard of ‘Chinese helicopter’, much less understand its meaning. My friends and I are therefore shocked and saddened that an almost forgotten Singlish term now resurfaces in the OED, rubbing salt into an old wound that never healed.”“
Kiasi – Hokkien ; meaning of ‘fear of death’
Kiasu – Hokkien ; meaning of ‘fear of losing’