English has been spoken in South Africa for more than 250 years, at least since the British military seized the Cape of Good Hope settlement from the Dutch in 1795. English is the language of public life: government, business, and the media. It is estimated that half of South Africa’s people have a speaking knowledge of the language.
For centuries South Africa’s official languages were European. Dutch, English, and Afrikaans. African languages, spoken by around 80% of the people, were ignored.
In 1996 South Africa’s new Constitution gave official recognition to all major languages.
South Africa now has 11 official languages and a multilingual population fluent in at least two.
English is widely used as a second language and common language of communication, mainly in the cities.
Afrikaans is a version of Dutch that evolved out of a South Holland dialect brought here in the 1600s. Over the centuries it has picked up many influences from African languages, as well as from European colonial languages such as English, French and German.
South Africa’s nine African official languages all fall into the Southern Bantu-Makua sub-family, part of the broad and branching Niger-Congo family of languages. The languages arrived here during the great expansion of Bantu-speaking people from West Africa eastwards and southwards into the rest of the continent.
Like all languages in the Niger-Congo family they are tonal languages, in which either a high or low tone gives a word a different meaning.
While English is the dominant first language in the cities, it is widely used as a second language across the country.
In 1910 English and Dutch were declared the official languages of the new Union of South Africa. English has retained this official status ever since.
English and Afrikaans speaking people (mostly coloured, Indian and white South Africans) tend not to have much ability in African languages, but are fairly fluent in each other’s language. Multilingualism is common among black South Africans.
Many South Africans are compelled to learn English, and often Afrikaans as well, simply to get a job and to work. These are often poorer people denied an adequate education. Elsewhere in the world the ability to speak many languages is a sign of sophistication. In South Africa, multilingualism – a complex undertaking, especially in languages from very different families – is a common achievement of the poor.
Language is fluid, especially in South Africa. Our languages are and have been for centuries in a constant swirl, mixed by work, migration, education, urbanisation, the places we live, friendship and marriage.
Because of this, South Africans are a language-mixing people. This simply means using more than one language in a single conversation. Every South African does this at some point, even if they aren’t aware of it. Influenced by the other languages spoken around them, all of South Africa’s languages change and grow continuously.
South Africa’s everyday English has gradually absorbed many words from African languages.
Mixed with over a dozen African languages for over two centuries, spiced by imports from British, Dutch, and Portuguese colonies, South African English has its own rich, varied and sometimes weird flavour.
These influences include Afrikaans, a South African language that grew out of a variety of Dutch spoken in the 1500s. South African English also borrows from African languages such as isiZulu, isiXhosa, Sesotho and Setswana, and the indigenous languages of the Khoesan and Nama people.
This glossary explains some of the words often used when English is spoken in South Africa.
A: abba to aweh
abba (verb) – Carry a child secured to one’s back with a blanket. From the Khoisan.
accrual (noun) – South African legal principle whereby a person going through a divorce may, if the value of their property has increased less than that of their spouse, claim at half of the difference in the accumulated value of their joint property.
Afrikaans (noun) – South African language, developed out of the Dutch spoken in the country since the first Dutch East India Company settlement in the Cape, established in 1652. Afrikaans was considered a dialect of Dutch – known as “Cape Dutch” – until recognised as a language in the late 19th century. From the Dutch for “African”.
Afrikaner (noun) – Afrikaans-speaking South African. From the Dutch Afrikaan (an African).
ag (exclamation) – Expression of frustration, outrage, impatience or resignation: “Ag no! I spilled coffee on my keyboard again!”
amasi (noun) – Thick curdled milk, also known as maas; similar to yoghurt. A traditional drink, amasi is now produced commercially. From the isiXhosa and isiZulu.
Anglo-Boer War (noun) – War between the British and the Boers, the forebears of today’s Afrikaners, from 1899 to 1902. While strictly the Second Boer War – the first being fought from 1880 to 1881 – it was by far the more significant conflict. Today the Anglo-Boer War is better known as the South African War. This recognises that while the declared war was ostensibly between the British and Boers, other people – Africans and Indians – also took part, and were victims of the conflict.
Anglo-Zulu War (noun) – War between the British and the Zulus, fought in 1879. Most famous for the battle of Isandlwana, in which the British colonial army suffered their greatest single military defeat ever.
apartheid (noun) – Literally “apartness” in Afrikaans, apartheid was the policy of racial segregation implemented by the National Party from 1948 to 1994, resulting in the oppression and labour exploitation of South Africa’s black majority, and their systematic exclusion from the country’s mainstream economic, educational and social life.
atchar (noun) – A spicy relish of Indian origin, much like a mix between chutney and a pickle and usually made from green mangoes. From Persian.
aweh (exclamation) – Enthusiastic yes, absolutely.
B: babbelas to bushveld
babbelas (noun) – Hangover. From the isiZulu ibhabhalazi (hangover).
bakgat (exclamation and adjective) – Fantastic, cool, awesome. From the Afrikaans.
bakkie (noun) – Utility truck, pick-up truck. Diminutive of the Afrikaans bak (container).
berg (noun) – Mountain. From the Afrikaans.
bergie (noun, derogatory) – Originally referred to homeless people who sheltered in the forests of Cape Town’s Table Mountain. It’s now a derogatory word for homeless people, generally. From the Afrikaans berg (mountain).
biltong (noun) – Dried and salted meat, similar to beef jerky, although it can be made from ostrich, kudu or any other red meat. The privations of early white colonialism made drying and salting, often with vinegar and spices, an essential means of preserving meat. From the Afrikaans, originally from the Dutch bil (rump) and tong (strip or tongue).
bioscope (noun, dated) – Cinema or movie theatre, originally a word widespread in Commonwealth countries such as South Africa and Australia that, although generally out of use, has survived longer in South Africa because of the influence of the Afrikaans bioskoop.
biscuit (noun) – Both a cookie and a term of affection for a person.
blesbok (noun) – South African antelope Damaliscus dorcas phillipsi , with a reddish-brown coat and prominent white blaze on the face. From the Afrikaans bles (blaze) and bok (buck).
bliksem (verb and noun) – To beat up, hit or punch – or a mischievous person. From the Afrikaans for “lightning”. See donder.
blooming (adjective and adverb) – Very, extremely, used with irritation: “My laptop’s a blooming mess after I spilled coffee on the keyboard.”
bobotie (noun) – Dish of Malay origin, made with minced meat and spices, and topped with an egg sauce. The recipe arrived in South Africa during the country’s Dutch occupation, via slaves from Dutch East India Company colonies in Jakarta, in today’s Indonesia. From the Indonesian bobotok.
boep (noun) – Pot belly, paunch; generally associated with the conformation of older – or beer-drinking – men. Shortened form of the Afrikaans boepens (paunch), from the Dutch boeg (bow of ship) and pens (stomach).
boer (noun) – Farmer. From the Afrikaans and Dutch.
boerewors (noun) – Savoury sausage developed by the Boers, the forebears of today’s Afrikaners, some 200 years ago, and still popular at braais across South Africa. Also known as wors. From the Afrikaans boer (farmer) and wors (sausage, Dutch worst).
boet (noun) – Term of affection, from the Afrikaans for “brother”.
bokkom, bokkem (noun) – South African salted fish hung on an outdoor rack for wind-drying – a kind of fish biltong. From the Dutch bokking , bokkem (smoked herring).
boma (noun) – In South Africa, an open thatched structure used for dinners, entertainment and parties. Originally a form of log fortification used to keep livestock in or enemies out. The word is used across Africa and is of uncertain origin.
boom (noun) – Marijuana, dagga. From the Afrikaans for “tree”.
brah (noun) – Brother, friend, mate. Shortening of “brother”.
braai (noun) – Meat cooked outside; equivalent of barbeque. From the Afrikaans for “roast”.
bredie (noun) – Originally mutton stew, introduced by Malay slaves brought to South Africa by the Dutch East India Company. It now refers to any kind of stew. Tomato bredie – stewed tomato and onions served with pap at a braai – is a favourite. From the Afrikaans, originally perhaps from the Portuguese bredo .
bru (noun) – Term of affection, shortened from Afrikaans and Dutch broer (pronounced “broo-er”), meaning “brother”.
bunny chow (noun) – Curry served in a hollowed-out half-loaf of bread, with the hollowed-out piece of bread placed on top. The dish originated in Durban’s immigrant Indian community, who arrived in what was then the colony of Natal from 1860 onwards. It is believed that bunny chow was a convenient food on the go for Indian labourers working especially in the colony’s sugarcane plantations. Today it is available across South Africa, in both cheap cafes and exclusive Indian restaurants. “Chow” is South African informal for food, perhaps from “chow-chow”, a relish that gets its name from the French chou (cabbage). The origin of “bunny” in bunny chow is, according to one theory, that the meal was first sold at a Durban restaurant run by Banias, an Indian caste. Also see “kota“.
Bushman (noun) – Member of a population group indigenous to southern Africa, with a far deeper history than any other settlers in the region. Bushmen are also known as San. There is some debate on the political correctness of the use of “San” versus “Bushman”.
bushveld (noun) – South Africa’s tropical savannah ecoregion, a terrain of thick scrubby trees and bush in dense thickets, with grassy ground cover between. From the Afrikaans bos (bush) and veld (field).
C: café to cousin
café, caffee (noun) – A small local neighbourhood store stocking basic groceries.
chakalaka (noun) – a spicy vegetable dish traditionally served as a sauce or relish with bread, pap, samp, stews or curries
check you (exclamation) – Goodbye, see you later.
china (noun) – Friend, mate. From the Cockney rhyming slang “china plate” = “mate”.
chiskop, chizkop, cheesekop, kaaskop (noun) – Bald person, particularly one with a shaved head. Kop is Afrikaans for head; the origin of the chis part is unclear. Otherwise known as kaaskop; kaas is Afrikaans for “cheese”.
chommie (noun) – Friend, mate. From the UK English chum, with the Afrikaans diminutive “ie”.
chop (noun) – Fool, idiot; often used affectionately.
Clever Boys, the (noun) – Affectionate term for the University of the Witwatersrand football club, Wits FC.
cooldrink, colddrink (noun) – Sweet fizzy drink such as Coca-Cola.
cousin, cuzzy (noun) – Friend, mate.
D: dagga to dwaal
dagga (noun) – Marijuana. From the Khoikhoi dachab.
dagha (noun) – Building mortar or plaster traditionally made with mud mixed with cow-dung and blood. Today it also refers to regular cement mortar and plaster. From the isiZulu and isiXhosa udaka (clay, mud).
dassie (noun) – Rock hyrax or Cape hyrax (Procavia capensis), a small herbivore that lives in mountainous habitats. From the Afrikaans das (badger).
deurmekaar (adjective) – Confused, disorganised or stupid, from the Afrikaans word of the same meaning.
dinges (noun) – Thing, thingamabob, whatzit, whatchamacallit, whatsizname or person with a forgotten name: “When is dinges coming around?” From the Afrikaans and Dutch ding (thing).
doek (noun) – Woman’s head scarf. From the Afrikaans.
dolos (noun) – Blocks of concrete in an H-shape, with one arm rotated through 90º. The dolos is a South African invention, with the interlocking blocks piled together to protect harbour seawalls and preserve beaches from erosion. The word comes from the Afrikaans for the knuckle bones in a sheep’s leg. The plural is dolosse.
donga (noun) – Ditch or deep fissure caused by severe soil erosion. From the isiZulu and isiXhosa udonga .
donner (verb) – Hit, beat up. From the Afrikaans donder (thunder). See bliksem.
dop (noun and verb) – Small tot of alcoholic drink. Also failure: “I dopped the test.” From the Afrikaans.
dorp (noun) – Small rural town. From the Afrikaans and Dutch dorp (village).
droë wors (noun) – Dried boerewors, similar to biltong. From the Afrikaans droe (dry) and wors (sausage).
Durbs (noun) – The city of Durban.
dwaal (noun and verb) – Lack of concentration or focus: “Sorry, I was in a bit of a dwaal. Could you repeat that?” Or, as a verb: “I was dwaaling down the street, going nowhere.” From the Afrikaans for err, wander or roam.
E: Egoli to ekasi
Egoli (noun) – Johannesburg. From the isiXhosa and isiZulu for “place of gold”; Johannesburg is historically South Africa’s primary gold-producing area, and the country’s richest city.
eina (exclamation and adjective) – Ouch! or Ow! Can also mean “sore”. Example (exclamation): “Eina! I just cut my finger.” Example (adjective): “That cut was eina.” From the Khoikhoi /é + //náu.
eish (exclamation) – Expression of surprise, wonder, frustration or outrage. Example: “Eish! That cut was eina!” From the isiXhosa and isiZulu.
ekasi See kasie
F: Fanagolo to fundi
Black, white and Chinese labourers in a South African gold mine some time between 1890 and 1923. The pidgin language Fanakolo developed to allow communication between the many different people brought to work on the mines.
Fanagolo, Fanakolo (noun) – Pidgin language that grew up mainly on South Africa’s gold mines to allow communication between white supervisors and African labourers during the colonial and apartheid era. It combines elements of the Nguni languages, English, and Afrikaans. From the Nguni fana ka lo , from fana (be like) and the possessive suffix -ka + lo (this).
fixed up (exclamation) – That’s good, yes, sorted. Example: “Let’s meet at the restaurant.” The reply: “Fixed up.”
flog (verb) – Sell. “I’ve had enough of this laptop. I think it’s time I flogged it.”
for sure, sure, sure-sure (exclamation) – Yes; general affirmative.
frikkadel (noun) – Meatball or rissole. From the Afrikaans, originally from the French fricandeau (fried sliced meat served with sauce).
fundi (noun) – Expert. From the Nguni umfundisi (teacher, preacher).
G: gatvol to Griqualand
gatvol (adjective) – Fed up. From the Afrikaans.
gemsbok (noun) – Large African antelope (Oryx gazella) with long, straight horns. From the Afrikaans gems (chamois, a European goat-antelope) and bok (buck).
gogga, goggo (noun) – Insect, bug. From the Khoikhoi xo-xon.
gogo (noun) – Grandmother or elderly woman. From the isiZulu.
gramadoelas (noun) – Wild or remote country. From the Afrikaans, perhaps originally from the isiXhosa and isiZulu induli (hillock).
graze (verb) – Eat.
Griqua (noun, plural and singular) – South African population group, or a member of that group, descended from a mix of early (from 1652) European blood with that of the indigenous Khokhoi, San and Tswana. They generally speak Afrikaans, and have their own church, the Protestant Griqua Church. “Griqua” is a Nama word.
Griqualand (noun) – Two South African regions historically occupied by the Griqua. Griqualand East, on the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal frontier, was settled by Adam Kok III and over 2 000 Griquas after a trek across the Drakensberg mountains in 1861. Today the region is centred around the town of Kokstad (Kok’s city). Griqualand West is the area around Kimberley, the capital of the Northern Cape. “Griqua” is a Nama word.
H: hanepoot to howzit
Hanepoot (noun) – Sweet wine made from the muscat blanc d’Alexandrie grape cultivar, and an alternate name for this cultivar.
hang of a (adjective) – Very or big, as in: “It’s hang of a difficult” or “I had a hang of a problem”.
hey (exclamation) – Expression that can be used as a standalone question meaning “pardon?” or “what?” – “Hey? What did you say?” Or it can be used to prompt affirmation or agreement, as in “It was a great film, hey?”
homelands (noun) – The spurious “independent” states in which black South Africans were forced to take citizenship under the policy of apartheid. Also known as bantustans.
howzit (exclamation) – Common South African greeting that translates roughly as “How are you?”, “How are things?” or just “Hello”. From “How is it?”
I: indaba to isiZulu
indaba (noun) – Conference or expo. From the isiZulu and isiXhosa for “matter” or “discussion”.
is it (exclamation) – Is that so?
Iscamtho, isiCamtho (noun) – Tsotsitaal (gangster language), a widely-spoken township patois made up of an amalgam of words from isiZulu, isiXhosa, Afrikaans and some English. From the isiZulu camto (speak).
isiNdebele (noun) – Nguni language of the Ndebele people.
isiXhosa (noun) – Nguni language of the Xhosa people.
isiZulu (noun) – Nguni language of the Zulu people.
J: ja to just now
ja (exclamation) – Yes. From the Afrikaans.
jawelnofine (exclamation) – Literally, “yes (ja in Afrikaans), well, no, fine”, all in a single word. An expression of resignation or puzzlement similar to “How about that?”
jislaaik (exclamation) – Expression of outrage, surprise or consternation: “Jislaaik, I spilled coffee on my laptop!” From the Afrikaans.
Joburg (noun) – Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city. Once informal, it is now used on the City of Johannesburg logo.
Joeys (noun) – Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city
jol (noun, verb and adjective) – Celebration, fun, party (noun); celebrate, have fun, party, dance and drink (verb). A person who does these things is a joller. From the Afrikaans for “dance” or “party”; perhaps related to “jolly”. Occasionally spelled “jawl” or “jorl”.
Jozi (noun) – Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city
just now (adverb) – Soonish, not immediately.
K: kaaskop to kwela-kwela
kaaskop, chiskop, chizkop, cheesekop (noun) – Bald person, or person with a shaved head. “Kop” is Afrikaans for head. “Kaas” is the Afrikaans for cheese. Why “cheese head” means bald person is not clear.
kasie (noun) – Shortened form of the Afrikaans lokasie (location), the older word for township – the low-income dormitory suburbs outside cities and towns to which black South Africans were confined during the apartheid era.
khaya (noun) – Home. From the Nguni group of languages.
Koekoes (noun) – crazy
Khoikhoi [also Quena] (noun) – Indigenous Khoisan people living in southwestern South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, including the Nama, and their languages. From the Nama for “people people” or “real people”.
Khoisan (noun) – Collective term for the Khoi and San people of South Africa.
kiepersol (noun) – Cabbage tree. From the Afrikaans, originally perhaps from the obsolete Indian English kittisol (parasol). The tree has some resemblance to an umbrella.
kif (adjective) – Cool, good, enjoyable. From the Arabic kayf (enjoyment, wellbeing).
kikoi (noun) – Attractively patterned cotton cloth with fringed ends used as an informal wraparound skirt, or towel, or picnic blanket. From the Kiswahili.
Kiswahili (noun) – Swahili, the language.
knopkierie (noun) – Fighting stick with a knob on the business end. From the Afrikaans knop (knob) and the Khoisan kirri or keeri , (stick).
koeksuster (noun) – Also spelled koeksister . Traditional Malay and 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 (to sizzle).
koki (noun) – Coloured marker or felt-tip pen. From a local brand name.
kombi (noun) – Minibus taxi. From the Volkswagen proprietary name Kombi, from the German Kombiwagen. Volkswagen minibuses were the first used in the initial stages of South Africa’s minibus taxi transport revolution of the early 1980s, although today other vehicle makes are used.
konfyt (noun) – Jam/Sweet fruit preserve. From the Afrikaans, originally from the Dutch konfit.
koppie (noun) – Cup or Small hill. From the Afrikaans.
kota (noun) – A quarter loaf of bread hollowed out and filled with combinations of atchar, polony (Bologna), Russian sausages, slap chips, cheese, eggs, chilli sauce and more. A street food variant of the more suburban bunny chow. From the English “quarter”.
kraal (noun) – 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 (bead), as in the beads of a necklace – kraals are generally round in shape.
krans (noun) – Cliff; overhanging wall of rock. From the Afrikaans.
kudu (noun) – Large African antelope (Tragelaphus strepsiceros and Tragelaphus imberbis). From the Afrikaans koedoe , originally from the isiXhosa i-qudu .
kwaito (noun) – Music of South Africa’s urban black youth, which first emerged in the 1990s. Kwaito is a mixture of South African disco, hip hop, R&B, ragga, and a heavy dose of house music beats. From the Tsotsitaal or township informal amakwaitosi (gangster).
kwela (noun) – Popular form of township music from the 1950s, based on the pennywhistle – a cheap and simple instrument used by street performers. The term kwela comes from the isiZulu for “get up” or “climb on”, also township slang for 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.
kwela-kwela (noun) – Police van, or minibus taxi. From the isiXhosa and isiZulu for “climb on”.
L: laatlammetjie to loerie
laatlammetjie (noun) – Youngest child of a family, born to older parents and much younger than their siblings. The word means “late lamb” in Afrikaans.
laduma! (exclamation) – A yell to celebrate a goal scored in a football match, from the isiZulu for “it thunders”.
lapa (noun) – Open-sided enclosure, usually roofed with thatch, used as an outdoor entertainment area. From the Sesotho for “homestead” or “courtyard”.
lappie (noun) – Cleaning cloth. From the Afrikaans, originally from the Dutch for “rag” or “cloth”.
lekker (adjective and adverb) – Nice, good, great, cool or tasty. From the Afrikaans.
load-shedding (noun) – Planned electricity blackout in a specific area, to relieve pressure on South Africa’s national power grid.
location (noun) – South African township; lokasie or kasie in Afrikaans.
loerie (noun) – Number of species of large fruit-eating African bird (genus Tauraco and others). From the Afrikaans, originally from the Malay luri (parrot).
loskop (noun) – A ditz, a scatterbrain. Afrikaans for “loose head” or “lost head”.
M: maas to Mzansi
maas, amasi (noun) – Thick curdled milk, similar to yoghurt. Maas is both made at home and can be bought ready-made. From the isiXhosa and isiZulu.
Madiba (noun) – Affectionate name for Nelson Mandela, and the name of his clan.
mal (adjective) – Mad. from the Afrikaans.
mama (noun) – An affectionate or polite name for older women.
mamba (noun) – Species of large and venomous African snake – the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis), the green mamba (Dendroaspis angustipecs), and other species. From the isiZulu imamba .
mampara (noun) – An idiot; a stupid or silly person. The Sunday Times newspaper shames wrongdoers in public life with its Mampara of the Week award.
mampoer (noun) – Strong brandy made from peaches or other fruit, similar to moonshine. An Afrikaans word with uncertain etymology; perhaps from the Pedi chief Mampuru. marula, maroela (noun) – South African woodland tree (Sclerocarya birrea caffra) with sweet yellow fruit. The fruit is now used in a locally produced commercial liqueur marketed as Amarula. From the Sesotho morula .
Matabele (noun) – Nguni-language-speaking people of Zimbabwe, and the majority population group in that country.
mielie (noun) – Maize or corn. A mealie is a maize cob, and mealie meal is maize meal, mostly cooked into pap, South Africa’s staple food. From the Afrikaans mielie .
melktert (noun) – “Milk tart”, a traditional Afrikaner dessert. From the Afrikaans.
mlungu (noun) – White person. From the Nguni. The plural is abelungu.
moegoe (noun) – Fool, buffoon, idiot or simpleton.
moer (verb) – Hit, punch, beat up. From the Afrikaans “murder”.
mokoro (noun) – Dugout canoe used in Botswana.
mopani worm (noun) – Moth caterpillar that feeds on the leaves of the mopani tree. Fried, the caterpillar is also a traditional dish.
morogo (noun) – Spinach; more specifically African spinach. From the Setswana and Sesotho “wild spinach” or “vegetables”.
Mosotho (noun) – A South Sotho person. The plural is Basotho.
mossie (noun) – Cape sparrow or house sparrow, but sometimes used to refer to any small undistinguished wild bird. From the Afrikaans, originally from the Dutch mosje , a diminutive of mos (sparrow).
mozzie (noun) – mosquito.
muti, muthi (noun) – Medicine, typically indigenous African medicine, from the isiZulu umuthi Mzansi (noun) – South Africa. From the isiXhosa for “south”.
N: naartjie to now-now
naartjie (noun) – Tangerine (Citrus reticulata). From the Afrikaans, originally from the Tamil nārattai .
Nama, Namaqua, Namaqualander (noun) – Khoikhoi people of South Africa’s Northern Cape province and southwest Namibia, one of those people, and the language they speak. From the Nama word for themselves.
Namaqualand (noun) – Arid region of South Africa’s Northern Cape province and southwestern Namibia, inhabited largely by the Nama people and known for its annual explosion of desert flowers.
Ndebele (noun) – Two groups on Nguni people, one found in southwest Zimbabwe and the other in northeast South Africa, or a member of one of these groups. Their language is isiNdebele.
nê (exclamation) – “Really?”, “Oh yeah?” or “Is that so?”. Used sarcastically or as an invitation to agreement, similar to “yes?”
Nguni (noun) – Wide and diverse group of people who speak Bantu languages, or one of these languages, living mainly in southern Africa. Nguni peoples include the Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swazi (also known as Swati), with the corresponding languages of isiZulu, isiXhosa, isiNdebele and siSwati.
now-now (adverb) – Shortly, in a bit: “I’ll be there now-now.”
O: oke to oribi
oke, ou (noun) – Man, similar to guy or bloke. The word ou can be used interchangeably. From the Afrikaans ou (old).
ola (exclamation) – Hello, greetings, how are you.
oribi (noun) – Small African antelope (Ourebia ourebi) with a reddish tan back and white underparts.
P: pap to protea
pap (noun) – Porridge made from mealie meal (maize meal) cooked with water and salt to a fairly stiff consistency – “stywepap” being the stiffest. The staple food of South Africa. “Pap” can also mean weak or tired. From the Afrikaans.
papsak (noun) – Cheap box wine sold in its foil container, without the box. From the Afrikaans pap (soft) and sak (sack).
pasop (verb) – Beware or watch out. From the Afrikaans.
Perlé (noun) – Semi-sweet, slightly sparkly and somewhat cheap South African wine. From the German Perlwein (slightly sparkling wine).
perlemoen (noun) – Abalone (Haliotis midae), a large shellfish much like a giant mussel. A delicacy, perlemoen fetch a high price internationally, putting the species under constant threat from poachers.From the Middle Dutch perlemoeder, mother of pearl: perl means pearl, moeder means mother.
phuza (noun) – Alcohol, liquor. “Phuza face” describes a person with a face puffy and bloated from drinking. From the isiXhosa and isiZulu, “drink”.
piet-my-vrou (noun) – The red-chested cuckoo (Cuculus solitarus). The name, mimicking the bird’s call, means “Peter my wife” in Afrikaans.
platteland (noun) – Farmland, countryside. Literally “flat land” in Afrikaans (plat means flat), it now refers to any rural area in which agriculture takes place.
potjie (noun) – Rounded and three-legged cast-iron pot, with a lid, used for cooking stew over an open fire. From the Afrikaans diminutive for “pot”.
potjiekos (noun) – Food – mostly long-stewed meat and vegetables – cooked in a potjie. A potjie , in Afrikaans, is a three-legged cast-iron pot used for cooking over an open fire; kos is Afrikaans for “food”.
protea (noun) – Group of South African fynbos plant species (genus Protea) with distinctive cone-like flower heads. The king protea is the country’s national flower.
Q: quagga to quiver tree
quagga (noun) – Extinct South African zebra (Equus quagga), with stripes only on its forequarters and a reddish-brown hide behind its stripes, native to South Africa’s Cape provinces. The species was indiscriminately hunted in the colonial era, until its last living specimen died at the Amsterdam zoo on 12 August 1883.
Quena (noun) – Khoikhoi
quiver tree (noun) – Tree-like aloe plant (Aloe dichotoma), mostly found in the desert regions of Namibia and South Africa’s Northern Cape province. The plant’s branches were used by the San Bushmen to make quivers for their arrows.
R: rand to rooinek
rand (noun) – South Africa’s currency, 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.
robot (noun) – Traffic lights.
rock up (phrasal verb) – Arrive somewhere, often unannounced or uninvited. Example: “I was going to go out but then my china rocked up.”
rooibos (noun) – Afrikaans for “red bush”, this popular South African tea made from the Cyclopia genistoides bush is gaining worldwide popularity for its health benefits.
rooinek (noun) – English-speaking white South African, from the Afrikaans for “red neck”. It was first coined by Afrikaners to refer to immigrants from England, whose white necks were particularly prone to sunburn.
S: samoosa to Swazi
samoosa (noun) – Small, spicy, triangular-shaped savoury pie deep-fried in oil, introduced to South Africa by the Indian and Malay communities. In the UK they are called “samosas”. From the Persian and Urdu.
San (noun) – Southern African Bushmen, a member of that group, or their language. From the Nama sān (meaning “aboriginals”, “settlers” or gatherers). There is some debate on the use of “San” versus “Bushman”.
sangoma (noun) – Traditional healer or diviner. From the isiZulu isangoma .
sarmie (noun) – Sandwich.
scale, scaly (verb and adjective) – To scale something means to steal it. A scaly person is not to be trusted.
Sepedi (noun) – Another name for Sesotho sa Leboa, the Northern Sotho language of the Basotho people.
Sesotho (noun) – Southern Sotho language of the Basotho people.
Sesotho sa Leboa (noun) – Northern Sotho (literally “Sotho of the north”) language of the Basotho people. Identified in Founding Provisions of the South African Constitution, which deals in part with language rights, as “Sepedi”.
Setswana (noun) – Bantu language of the Tswana people.
shame (exclamation) – Broadly denotes sympathetic feeling or pleasure. Someone admiring a baby, kitten or puppy might say: “Ag shame!” to emphasise its cuteness. Also used to express sympathy. As writer Jacob Dlamini says: “Only in South Africa would people use the word shame when a baby is born (“Shame, what a beautiful baby!”); when that baby falls and hurts itself (“Shame, poor thing!”) and when that baby dies (“Ag shame, what a shame!”). To us, shame is just one of those words that have become something of an omnibus. We use it to mean whatever we want it to mean.”
sharp (exclamation) – Often doubled up for effect as “sharp-sharp!”, the word is used as a greeting, a farewell, for agreement or just to express enthusiasm.
shebeen (noun) – Township tavern, illegal under the apartheid regime, often set up in a private house. Similar to a US prohibition-era speakeasy. From the 18th-century Anglo-Irish síbín, from séibe, “mugful”.
shongololo, songololo (noun) – Large brown millipede, from the isiXhosa and isiZulu ukushonga (to roll up).
shot (noun) – Good, yes, it’s been done, thanks.
shweet (noun) – Good, yes.
siSwati (noun) – Nguni language of the Swazi people.
sjambok (noun and verb) – Stout leather whip made from animal hide. As verb, to hit someone or something with the whip. From the Dutch tjambok , from the Urdu chābuk .
skelm (noun and adverb) – Shifty or untrustworthy person; a criminal. As an adverb, to do something on the sly. From the Afrikaans, from the Dutch schelm.
skinner (noun and verb) – Gossip, to gossip. A person who gossips is known as a skinnerbek (gossip mouth). From the Afrikaans.
skollie (noun) – Gangster, criminal, from the Greek skolios, crooked.
skop, skiet en donner (noun) – Action movie. Taken from Afrikaans, it literally means “kick, shoot and beat up”.
skrik (noun) – Fright: “I caught a big skrik” means “I got a big fright”. From the Afrikaans.
skrik vir niks (adjective) – Scared of nothing. From the Afrikaans.
slap chips chips) (noun) – French fries, usually soft, oily and vinegar-drenched. Slap is Afrikaans for “limp”.
smokes (noun) – Cigarettes.
snoek (noun) – Popular and tasty fish (Thyrsites atun) of the southern oceans. From the Afrikaans.
snotsiekte (noun) – A flu or cold-like state, characterised by excessive production of nasal mucous, or snot. From the Afrikaans snot (snot) and siekte (sickness).
sosatie (noun) – Kebab on a stick. Afrikaans, from the South African Dutch sasaattje , from the Javanese sesate. Java, like the Cape, was a Dutch East India Company colony.
Sotho (noun) – Member of a group of people living mainly in Lesotho, Botswana and the northern parts of South Africa, and their languages.
soutpiel (noun) – English-speaking white South African, literally “salty penis” in Afrikaans. The idea is the soutpiel has one foot in South Africa, the other in England, with the penis dipped in the ocean between.
Soweto (noun) – South Africa’s largest township, in the south of the City of Johannesburg municipality. From the abbreviation of South Western Townships.
spanspek (noun) – 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, ate melon instead of bacon for breakfast, and her Afrikaans-speaking servants coined the word.
spaza (noun) – Informal township and inner city convenience store. From township slang for “camouflaged”.
spookgerook (adjective) – Literally, in Afrikaans, ghost-smoked – mad, paranoid or high.
springbok (noun) – South African gazelle Antidorcas marsupialis, known for leaping in the air (“pronking”) when disturbed, under predator attack or as display. The springbok is South Africa’s national animal. From the Afrikaans spring (jump or spring) and bok (buck).
Springboks (noun) – South African national rugby team, known affectionately as the Bokke. From the springbok, South Africa’s national animal.
stoep (noun) – Porch or verandah. From the Dutch (via Afrikaans) stoep, steps or a raised elevation in front of a house, related to “step”.
stokvel (noun) – Informal savings club, where members make a regular equal payment very week, fortnight or month. Every month or year a single member is then given the entire pot.
stompie (noun) – Cigarette butt. From the Afrikaans stomp (stump). The term “picking up stompies” means intruding into a conversation towards its end, without knowing what had been discussed.
stroppy (adjective) – Difficult, uncooperative, argumentative or stubborn. Originated in the 1950s, perhaps as a shortening of obstreperous.
struesbob (exclamation) – “As true as Bob”, as true as God, the gospel truth.
sure, sure-sure, for sure (exclamation) – Yes; general affirmative.
Swazi, siSwati (noun) – The Swazi people, and their language.
T: takkie to tune
takkie, tekkie (noun) – Basic running shoe or sneaker. Possibly from “tacky”, meaning “cheap” or “of poor quality”.
tannie (noun) – “Auntie” in Afrikaans, but used for any older woman.
taxi (noun) – Generally a minibus used to transport a large number of people, and the most-used form of transport in South Africa.
to die for (adjective) – Wonderful, beautiful, coveted: “That lipstick is to die for.”
tokoloshe (noun) – Evil imp or spirit, thought to be most active at night. Part of South African folklore and today often the subject of tabloid journalism. From the isiZulu utokoloshe and isiXhosa uthikoloshe (river-spirit).
toppie (noun) – Middle-aged or elderly man, or father. From either the isiZulu thopi (growing sparsely, a reference to thinning hair), or the Hindi topi (hat).
township (noun) – Low-income dormitory suburb outside a city or town in which black South Africans were required by law to live, while they sold their labour in the city or town centre, during the apartheid era.
toyi-toyi (noun) – A knees-up protest dance. From the isiNdebele and Shona.
trek (noun) – Long and often arduous journey. Best known from the Great Trek, the long journey by oxwagon the forebears of the Afrikaners took from the Cape Colony into the South African interior to escape British colonialism, beginning in the 1820s.
Tshivenda (noun) – Language of the Venda people.
tsotsi (noun) – Gangster, hoodlum or thug – and the title of South Africa’s first Oscar-winning movie. Perhaps a corruption of “zoot suit”, the type of flashy clothing worn by township thugs in the 1950s.
Tsotsitaal (noun) – Township dialect, derived from 1950s gangster slang, made up of a mixture of Afrikaans and isiZulu, and largely spoken in Gauteng. From the Tostsitaal tsotsi (gangster) and Afrikaans taal (language).
Tswana (noun) – Member of a group of people mainly found in Botswana and northern South Africa, and their language.
tune, tune me, tune grief, tune me grief (verb) – Tell, tell off, challenge me in a negative way.
U: ubuntu to Umkhonto we Sizwe
ubuntu (noun) – Southern African humanist philosophy of fellowship and community, based on the notion that a person is a person because of other people: “I am who I am because of you”. From the isiZulu for “humanity” or “goodness”.
Umkhonto (noun) – Short form of Umkhonto we Sizwe.
Umkhonto we Sizwe (noun) – Army of the exiled African National Congress during the struggle against apartheid; since 1994 amalgamated into the South African National Defence Force. From the isiZulu for “spear of the nation”.
V: veld to vuvuzela
veld (noun) – Open grassland. From the Afrikaans, from the Dutch for “field”.
veldskoen, velskoen, vellie (noun) – Simple unworked leather shoes. From the Afrikaans veld (field) or vel (skin or hide) and skoen (shoe).
Venda (noun) – South African population group largely found in Limpopo province, who speak the Tshivenda language.
verkramp (adjective) – Extremely politically conservative or reactionary. From the Afrikaans for “narrow” or “cramped”.
vetkoek (noun) – Doughnut-sized bread roll made from deep-fried yeast dough, often served with savoury mince-meat. From the Afrikaans vet (fat) and koek (cake).
voema (noun) – Speed or power, oomph. From the Afrikaans. Variant spelling of woema.
voetsek (exclamation) – Go away, buzz off. From the Afrikaans, originally from the 19th-century Dutch voort seg ik (be off I say).
voetstoets (adjective) – “As is” or “with all its faults”. A legal term, used in the sale of a car or house. If the item is sold voetstoets the buyer may not claim for any defects, hidden or otherwise, discovered after the sale. From the Afrikaans, originally from the Dutch met de voet te stoten (to push with the foot).
vrot (adjective) – Rotten or smelly. From the Afrikaans.
vuvuzela (noun) – Large, colourful plastic trumpet with the sound of a foghorn, blown by crowds at football matches. From the isiZulu for “making noise”.
W: walkie-talkie to wors
walkie-talkie (noun) – South African delicacy made from the heads and feet of a chicken.
wildebeest (noun) – Gnu; large African antelope of two species (the blue or black wildebeest, genus Connochaetes) with a long head and sloping back. From the Afrikaans wilde (wild) and beest (beast).
windgat (noun) – Show-off or blabbermouth. From the Afrikaans wind (wind) and gat (hole).
witblitz (noun) – Potent home-made distilled alcohol, much like the American moonshine. From the Afrikaans wit (white) and blitz (lightning).
woema (noun) – Speed or power, oomph. From the Afrikaans.
woes (adjective) – Angry, irritated or aggressive. From the Afrikaans.
wonderboom (noun) – Wild fig (Ficus salicifolia), native to southern Africa. Also the name of a suburb of the city of Pretoria, and a South African pop group. From the Afrikaans wonder (wonder or marvel) and boom (tree).
wors (noun) – Short for “boerewors”, a savoury sausage developed by the Boers, the forebears of today’s Afrikaners, some 200 years ago, and still popular at braais across South Africa. Also known as wors. From the Afrikaans boer (farmer) and wors (sausage, Dutch worst).
XYZ: Xhosa to Zulu
Xhosa (noun) – Nguni-language-speaking people of South Africa, found mainly in the Eastern Cape province.
Xitsonga (noun) – Nguni language of the Tsonga people.
yellow rice (noun) – Rice cooked with turmeric and raisins, often served with curry.
zamalek (noun) – Carling Black Label beer.
Zebu (noun) – Long-horned and often hump-backed varieties of cattle (Bos indicus), originally from India but now found in a large number of breeds across Africa. South African breeds include the Nguni and Afrikaner.
zol (noun) – Hand-rolled cigarette or marijuana joint.
Zulu (noun) – Nguni-language-speaking South African population group found mainly in KwaZulu-Natal. Their language is isiZulu.