SA words spice up OED

7 October 2002

What South African words would you include in an English dictionary designed for the region?

There are words one hears every day in South Africa: ubuntu, for example, that Nguni word meaning humanity. There are lekgotla (Sesotho) and bosberaad (Afrikaans) – both strategy planning sessions, usually called by government or organisations.

Some South African words have entered world usage – “fundi’, from the isiNdebele umfundi (an expert, a teacher) and “trek’, from South African Dutch (a long or arduous journey). Others, perhaps, deserve elevation into “World English’: babelaas (hung-over), from the isiZulu ibhabhalazi; and for those who get themselves into that state, dof, or stupid, from Afrikaans.

The South African Concise Oxford Dictionary is the newest in a range of regional dictionaries – there are Canadian, Australian and Indian editions – and the editors had some difficult choices to make. They settled on 1 500 examples of South African English, including words specific to the country as well as those which have meanings in South Africa different from their definitions overseas.

“Madam’, for example, might be “a polite form of address for a woman’ elsewhere, but here it’s “the mistress of a household, usually a white woman’, or “an affluent urban white woman’. A “bond’ in South Africa is a “mortgage’ in the US and the UK. And perhaps the best-known example: a South African “robot’ is not a steel-plated humanoid but a traffic light.

Less known, but also important, is the use of the comma in figures. The second, South African usage entry under “comma’ is “a mark representing a decimal comma: two comma five metres’ – presumably where many other countries would say “point’.

Choices were made by The Dictionary Unit for South African English, a not-for-profit unit affiliated to Rhodes University in Grahamstown and financed partly by the Pan South African Language Board, established by the South African Constitution to promote the country’s 11 official languages as well as other languages used in the country.

The unit had a head start: set up in the 1960s by linguistic academics Jean and William Branford, it could rely on their 1978 Dictionary of South African English and the unit’s massive 1996 Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles.

The new dictionary is intended, say the publishers, for the average adult, the student and the professional. It veers from politics (Nepad, Black Consciousness, Gear) to food and drink (witblits, mebos, skottel) to agriculture – or, anyway, a particular crop. “Ganja’ was there already (origin: from Hindi gamja), but the South African edition has added dagga (origin: from Khoikhoi dachab) and “Durban poison’ (cannabis of a particularly potent variety, originating in KwaZulu-Natal, or so says the dictionary).

The preference for Mandrax among South African substance abusers – more than in any other country – is also reflected in the dictionary, with one of the definitions of “button’ being “South African informal: a Mandrax tablet’.

There is a nod to youth culture, or at least its music. There is nothing especially South African about hip hop (it is, says the dictionary, of US black and Hispanic origin) or rap (of US origin) or kwasa kwasa (“a lively erotic dance originating in central Africa’ as well as “a genre of popular African music’).

But kwaito is distinctly home-grown. It is defined as “a style of popular dance music featuring rhythmically recited vocals over an instrumental backing with strong bass lines’. So now you know – and the origin of the name, if not the style, goes deep into Johannesburg culture. “Kwaito’, says the dictionary, comes from the Amakwaito, a group of 1950s gangsters in Sophiatown – and they, in turn, derived their name from an Afrikaans word for angry or vicious: kwaai.

Traditional South African culture is highlighted in the new dictionary, with many words from official languages, especially Nguni, included. An imbizo – traditionally “a gathering called by a traditional leader’ but also “a meeting or workshop’ – comes from the isiZulu biza, “call, summon’.

Makoti is in (“a young married woman, a bride’, from isiZulu), and indoda (“a man, especially one who has undergone traditional initiation’, from isiXhosa and isiZulu). So are imbongi (a praise singer) and inyanga (“a traditional healer who uses herbal remedies. Compare with sangoma’), as well as sangoma (“a traditional healer or diviner, from isangoma‘).

And traditional culture of a different kind is included as well, with many words from Afrikaans, among them deurmekaar (“confused, disorganised’ – like many words, rather more evocative in original than in translation), boeremusiek and boerekos, and everybody’s favourite, lekker, which the dictionary helpfully defines as “tipsy’ as well as “good’ and “pleasant’.

Anyone seeking an illustration of the interweaving and interdependency of different South African cultures need look no further than the language.

Tsotsitaal, for example, is “an Afrikaans-influenced township patois . typically spoken in Gauteng. Origin from tsotsi + Afrikaans taal ‘language”). And the word tsotsi? It’s “a black urban criminal’, says the entry, and its origin is “perhaps a Sesotho corruption of zoot suit, with reference to the flashy clothes originally associated with tsotsis’.

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