South Africans speak English, but that doesn’t mean you’ll always understand us. Our robots are nothing like R2D2, just now doesn’t mean immediately, and babbelas is not a shampoo.
South African English has a flavour all its own, borrowing freely from Afrikaans, which is similar to Dutch and Flemish, as well as from the country’s many African languages. Some words come from colonial-era Malay and Portuguese immigrants.
Note: In many words derived from Afrikaans, the letter “g” is pronounced in the same way as the “ch” in the Scottish “loch” or the German “achtung” – a kind of growl at the back of the throat. In the pronunciation guides below, the spelling for this sound is given as “gh”.
abba – Carry a child secured to one’s back with a blanket. From the Khoi-San.
amasi (pronounced um-ah-see) – A popular drink of thick sour milk. From isiZulu. An alternative name is maas.
apartheid (ap-art-hate) – Literally “apart-ness” in Afrikaans, apartheid was the policy of racial separation, and the resulting oppression of the black majority, implemented by the National Party from 1948 to 1990.
A short history of South Africa
ag (agh) – Generally used at the beginning of a sentence, to express resignation or irritation, as in: “Ag no man! What did you do that for?”
babbelas (bub-buh-luss) – A hangover.
bakgat (buck-ghut) – Well done, cool, awesome.
bakkie (buck-ee) – A pick-up truck.
bergie (bear-ghee) – From the Afrikaans berg, “mountain”, originally referring to vagrants who sheltered in the forests of Cape Town’s Table Mountain and now a mainstream word for anyone who is down and out.
biltong (bill-tong) – This South African favourite is dried and salted meat, similar to beef jerky, although it can be made from ostrich, kudu or any other red meat.
South African cuisine
bioscope – A cinema or movie theatre, originally a defunct international English word that has survived longer in South Africa because of the influence of the Afrikaans, bioskoop.
biscuit – In South Africa a cookie is known as a “biscuit”. The word is also a term of affection, as in, “Hey, you biscuit”.
bliksem – To beat up, hit or punch; or a mischievous person.
blooming (blimmin) – A variation on “very”, as in, “That new bakkie is blimmin big.”
bobotie (buh-boor-tee) – A dish of Malay origin, made with minced meat and spices, and topped with an egg sauce.
boerewors (boor-uh-vors) – Literally, “farmer’s sausage”. A savoury sausage developed by the Boers – today’s Afrikaners – some 200 years ago, boerewors is South African food at its most traditional.
boet (like “book”, with a t) – A term of affection, from the Afrikaans for “brother”.
boma (bow-mah) – An open thatched structure used for dinners, entertainment and parties.
bonsella – Surprise gift, something extra, or a bribe. From isiZulu.
bosberaad (borse-bah-raad)- A strategy meeting or conference, usually held in a remote bushveld location, such as a game farm.
bredie (brear-dee) – A traditional South African mutton stew, first brought to the country by Malay immigrants. It now refers to any kind of stew.
bunny chow – Delicious and cheap food on the go, bunny chow is curry served in a hollowed-out half-loaf of bread, generally sold in greasy- spoon cafés.
bushveld (bush-felt) – Taken from the Afrikaans bosveld (“bush field”), the bushveld is a terrain of thick scrubby trees and bush in dense thickets, with grassy groundcover between.
café (kaf-ay, kaff-ee or kayff) – The ubiquitous small neighbourhood convenience store, often found on street corners and stocking cigarettes, cold drinks and newspapers.
china – To most people, China is the world’s most populous country, but to a South African it can mean something entirely different. China means “good friend”, as in, “This oke’s my china”. It’s one of the few Cockney rhyming slang words to survive in the country, coming from “china plate” = “mate”.
chommie – Friend, from the English, “chum”.
cooldrink, colddrink – This is the common term for a soda, such as Coca-Cola. Ask for “a soda” in South Africa, and you will receive a club soda.
dassie – The rock hyrax, a small herbivore that lives in mountainous habitats and is reputed to be the species mostly closely related to the elephant. The name comes from the Afrikaans das, meaning “badger”.
deurmekaar (dee-oor-muh-car) – Afrikaans for confused, disorganised or stupid, as in, “He’s a bit deurmekaar“.
dinges (ding-us) – A thing, thingamabob, whatzit, whatchamacallit or whatsizname, as in, “When is dinges coming around?”
doek (like book) – A head scarf worn to protect a woman’s hair.
dolos – Interlocking blocks of concrete in an H-shape, with one arm rotated through 90º. The dolos is a South African invention used to protect seawalls and preserve beaches from erosion. The name comes from the Afrikaans word for the knuckle bones in an animal’s leg. The plural is dolosse.
South Africa’s wave-breaking dolosse
donga – A natural ditch resulting from severe soil erosion. From the isiZulu for “wall”.
donner (dor-nuh) – Beat up. From the Afrikaans donder, meaning “thunder”.
dop (dawp) – An alcoholic drink: “Can I pour you a dop?” It can also mean failure: “I dopped the test.”
dorp – A small town on the platteland.
dummy – A baby’s pacifier.
dumpie – A South African beer served in a brown 340ml bottle.
Durbs – The city of Durban.
Head for the Durban beachfront
dwaal (dwarl) – Lack of concentration or focus: “Sorry, I was in a bit of a dwaal. Could you repeat that?”
eina (ay-nuh or ay-nar) – Ouch! Can also mean “sore”.
eish (aysh) – Used to express surprise, wonder, frustration or outrage: “Eish! That cut was eina!”
Fixed up – Used to mean “that’s good” or “sorted”. Example: “Let’s meet at the restaurant.” The reply: “Fixed up.”
flog – No whips implied. South Africans use flog to mean “sell”, as in “I think it’s time I flogged this old car.”
frikkadel (frik-kuh-dell) – A traditional meatball.
fundi (foon-dee) – Expert. From the Nguni, umfundisi, meaning “teacher” or “preacher”.
fynbos (fayn-baws) – “Fine bush” in Afrikaans, fynbos is a vegetation type unique to the Cape Floral Region, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Made up of some 6 000 plant species, including many types of protea.
Gallery: South Africa’s plant life
gogga, goggo (gho-gha or gho-gho) – Insect, bug. From the Khoikhoi xo-xon.
gogo (goh-goh) – Grandmother or elderly woman, from isiZulu.
graze – Eat.
hang of – Very or big, as in, “It’s hang of a difficult”, or, “I had a hang of a problem”.
hanepoot (haa-nah-poort) – A sweet wine made from the muscat blanc d’Alexandrie grape cultivar.
hap (hup) – Taste, bite, as in, “Take a hap of this”.
hey – This popular expression can be used as a standalone question meaning “pardon” or “what”, as in, “Hey? What did you say?” Or it can be used to prompt affirmation or agreement, as in, “It was a great film, hey?”
homelands – The spurious “independent” states in which black South Africans were forced to take citizenship under the policy of apartheid. Also known as bantustans.
howzit – A traditional South African greeting that translates roughly as “How are you?”, “How are things?”, or simply “Hello”.
indaba (in-daa-bah) – A conference or expo, from the isiZulu word meaning “a matter for discussion”.
inyanga – A traditional herbalist and healer.
is it (as one word: izit) – An expression frequently used in conversation and equivalent to, “Is that so?”
ja (yaa) – Yes.
jawelnofine – Literally, “yes, well, no, fine”, all scrunched into a single word and similar to the rhetorical expression, “How about that?”
jislaaik (yis-like) – An expression of outrage or surprise: “Jislaaik, I just saw Elvis!”
jol (jawl) – A versatile word with many meanings, including “party”, “disco”, “having fun”, or just “thing”.
Jozi (jo-zee) – The city of Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, which is also known as Joburg or Joeys.
Joburg on the move
just now – If a South African tells you they will do something “just now”, they mean they’ll do it in the near future – not immediately, as in, “I’ll do the dishes just now.”
kasie (kaa-see) – Shortened form of lokasie, “location” in Afrikaans, the older word for township. Refers to the low-income dormitory suburbs outside cities and towns to which black South Africans were confined during the apartheid era.
khaya (k-eye-ya) – Home. From the Nguni group of languages.
kif – Cool, neat, great or wonderful. From the Arabic kayf, meaning enjoyment or wellbeing.
knobkierie (k-nob-kee-ree) – A fighting stick with a knob on the business end. From the Afrikaans knop (“knob”) and the Khoi-San kirri or keeri, meaning “stick”.
koeksister (kook-sister) – A traditional Malay and now also Afrikaner sweet, made from twisted yeast dough, deep fried and dipped in syrup. The right-wing enclave of Orania in the Northern Cape even has its own statue to the koeksister. The word comes from the Dutch koek (“cake”) and sissen, meaning “to sizzle”.
koki (koh-key) – A coloured marker or felt-tip pen.
koppie (kor-pie) – A small hill.
kraal – An enclosure for livestock, or a rural village of huts surrounded by a stockade. The word may come from the Portuguese curral (“corral”), or from the Dutch kraal, meaning bead, as in the beads of a necklace – kraals are generally round in shape.
kwaito (kw-eye-toe) – The music of South Africa’s urban black youth, a mixture of South African disco, hip hop, R&B, ragga, and a heavy dose of house music beats.
Kwaito: much more than music
kwela (kw-eh-la) – A popular form of township music from the 1950s, based on the pennywhistle, a cheap and simple instrument taken up by street performers. The term kwela comes from the isiZulu for “get up”, though in township slang it also referred to the police vans, the kwela- kwela. It is said that the young men who played the pennywhistle on street corners also acted as lookouts to warn those drinking in illegal shebeens of the arrival of the cops.
laatlammetjie (laart-lum-et-chie) – The youngest child of a family, born (mostly by accident) to older parents and many years younger than its siblings. The word means “late lamb” in Afrikaans.
laduma! (la-doo-mah) – A popular cheer celebrating goals scored at soccer matches, from the isiZulu for “it thunders”.
Soccer in South Africa
lappie (luppie) – A cleaning cloth.
lekgotla (lek-ghot-lah) – A planning or strategy session.
lekker (lekk-irr with a rolling r) – Nice, good, great, cool or tasty.
Madiba (muh-dee-buh) – An affectionate name for former President Nelson Mandela, and the name of his clan.
mal (mull) – Mad, from Afrikaans.
mampara (mum-puh-rah) – An idiot, a silly person. From the Sotho languages.
Marmite – Trade name of a dark-coloured spread made from vegetable extract and used on bread or toast.
moegoe (moo-ghoo) – A fool, buffoon, idiot or simpleton.
mossie (morse-ee) – Common name of the Cape sparrow, also applied to the house sparrow, and sometimes used to refer to any small undistinguished wild bird.
Gallery: birdlife of South Africa
muti (moo-ti) – Medicine, typically traditional African medicine. From the isiZulu, umuthi.
Joburg’s king of muti museum
Mzansi (m-zun-zee) – A popular word for South Africa.
naartjie (nar-chee) – The South African word for tangerine, Citrus reticulata.
nappy – A baby’s diaper.
nca – Fine, beautiful. Pronounced with a downward click of the tongue.
nê (neh) – “Really?” or “is that so?” Often used sarcastically.
now-now – Shortly, in a bit, as in, “I’ll be there now-now.”
oke, ou – A man, similar to “guy” or “bloke”. The word “ou” (oh) can be used interchangeably.
pap (pup) – The staple food of South Africa, a porridge made from mealie meal (maize meal) cooked with water and salt to a fairly stiff consistency, stywepap being the stiffest. “Pap” can also mean weak or tired.
papsak (pup-suck) – Cheap box wine sold in its foil container, without the box.
pasop (pus-orp) – An Afrikaans word meaning “beware” or “watch out”.
pavement – South Africans walk on pavements and drive cars on the road (at least that’s the idea). The pavement is the sidewalk.
piet-my-vrou (peet-may-frow) – The red-chested cuckoo, Cuculus solitarus. The name, an approximation of the bird’s call, literally means “Peter my wife” in Afrikaans.
platteland (plutt-uh-lunt) – Farmland, countryside. Literally flat land in Afrikaans, it now refers to any rural area in which agriculture takes place, including the mountainous Cape winelands.
Gallery: South Africa’s countryside
potjiekos (poi-chee-kors) – Traditional Afrikaner food, generally a rich stew, cooked in a three-legged cast-iron pot over a fire. The word means “little-pot food” in Afrikaans.
puffadder – A viper or adder of the species Britis arietans. From the Afrikaans pofadder.
rand – The South African currency, which is made up of 100 cents. The name comes from the Witwatersrand (Dutch for “white waters ridge”), the region in Gauteng province in which most of the country’s gold deposits are found.
robots – Traffic lights.
rock up – To arrive somewhere unannounced or uninvited. It’s the kind of thing friends do: “I was going to go out but then my china rocked up.”
rooibos (roy-borss) – Afrikaans for red bush, this popular South African tea made from the Cyclopia genistoides bush is gaining worldwide popularity for its health benefits.
See the SA Rooibos Council
rooinek (roy-neck) – English-speaking South African, from the Afrikaans for red neck, but without the connotations given the term in the US. It was first coined by Afrikaners decades ago to refer to immigrant Englishmen, whose white necks were particularly prone to sunburn.
rubbish bin, alternatively dustbin or dirt bin – Garbage can.
samoosa (suh-moo-suh) – A small, spicy, triangular-shaped pie deep-fried in oil. Originally made by the Indian and Malay communities, samoosas – known as samosas in Britain – are popular with all South Africans.
sangoma (sun-go-mah) – Traditional healer or diviner.
sarmie – Sandwich.
scale, scaly – To “scale something” means to steal it. A “scaly person” is not to be trusted.
shame – Broadly denotes sympathetic feeling. A South African admiring a baby, kitten or puppy might say, “Ag shame!”, to emphasise its cuteness.
sharp – Often doubled up for effect as sharp-sharp! , this word is used as a greeting, a farewell, for agreement, or just to express enthusiasm.
shongololo – Large brown millipede, from the isiZulu ukushonga, meaning “to roll up”.
sjambok (sham-bok) – A stout leather whip made from animal hide.
skelm (skellem) – A shifty or untrustworthy person; a criminal.
skinner (skinner) – Gossip, from Afrikaans. A person who gossips is known as a skinnerbek: “Jislaaik, bru, I’m going to donner that skinnerbek for skinnering about me.” Translation: “Gee, my friend, I’m going to hit that guy for gossiping about me.”
skollie (skoh-li) – Gangster, criminal, from the Greek skolios, meaning crooked.
skop, skiet en donner (skorp, skeet en donner) – Action movie. Taken from Afrikaans, it literally means “kick, shoot and beat up”.
skrik – Fright: “I caught a big skrik” means, “I got a big fright”.
skrik vir niks – Scared of nothing.
slap chips (slup chips) – French fries, usually soft, oily and vinegar-drenched, bought in a brown paper bag. Slap is Afrikaans for “limp”, which is how French fries are generally made here.
smaak stukkend – Love to bits. In Afrikaans smaak means “like”, and stukkend means “broken”.
smokes – Cigarettes.
snoek (like book) – A popular and tasty fish, often eaten smoked. A snoek braai is a real South African treat.
sosatie (soh-saa-tee) – A kebab, often lamb on a stick.
spanspek (spun-speck) – Cantaloupe, an orange-fleshed melon. The word comes from the Afrikaans Spaanse spek, meaning “Spanish bacon”. The story goes that Juana Smith, the Spanish wife of 19th-century Cape governor Harry Smith, insisted on eating melon instead of bacon for breakfast, causing her bemused Afrikaans-speaking servants to coin the word.
spaza – Informal township shop.
spookgerook (spoo-ahk-ghah-roo-ahk) – Literally, in Afrikaans, “ghost-smoked”. Used jokingly, the word means “mad” or “paranoid”.
stoep (stup) – Porch or verandah.
stompie – A cigarette butt. From the Afrikaans stomp, meaning “stump”. The expression “picking up stompies” means intruding into a conversation at its tail end, with little information about its content.
stroppy – Difficult, unco-operative, argumentative or stubborn.
struesbob (s-true-zz-bob) – “As true as Bob”, as true as God, the gospel truth.
takkies – Running shoes or sneakers. “Fat takkies” are extra- wide tyres.
tannie (tunny) – An Afrikaans word meaning “auntie”, but also used to refer to any older female of authority.
taxi – Not a metered car with a single occupant, but a minibus used to transport a large number of people, and the most common way of getting around in South Africa.
to die for – An expression popular in the affluent suburbs of Johannesburg and Cape Town, denoting enthusiastic approval for an object or person: “That necklace is to die for.”
tom – Money.
toppie – Old man.
Soweto, heartbeat of the nation
toyi-toyi – A knees-up protest dance.
tsotsi – A gangster, hoodlum or thug – and the title of South Africa’s first Oscar-winning movie.
tune grief – Cause trouble.
ubuntu – Southern African humanist philosophy that holds as its central tenet that a person is a person through others.
An ubuntu Buddhist in Ixopo
veld (felt) – Open grassland. From the Dutch for “field”.
velskoen (fell-skun) – Simple, unworked leather shoes.
vetkoek (fet-cook) – “Fat cake” in Afrikaans, vetkoek is a doughnut-sized bread roll made from deep-fried yeast dough. Mainly served with a savoury mince filling, it is artery-clogging and delicious.
voetsek (foot-sak) – Go away, buzz off.
voetstoots (foot-stoots) – “As is” or “with all its faults”. The term is used when advertising, for example, a car or house for sale. If the item is sold “voetstoots”, the buyer may not claim for any defects, hidden or otherwise, discovered after the sale. From the Dutch met de voet te stoten, meaning “to kick”.
vrot (frot) – Rotten or smelly.
vuvuzela (voo-voo-zeh-lah) – A large, colourful plastic trumpet with the sound of a foghorn, blown enthusiastically by virtually everyone in the crowd at soccer matches. According to some, the word comes from the isiZulu for “making noise”.
Vuvuzela: football’s beautiful noise MediaClub photos: Vuvuzelas conquer the world
windgat (vint-ghut) – Show-off or blabbermouth. Taken from the Afrikaans, it literally means “wind hole”.
Updated: 16 April 2012
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