The possibility of a loan: adverbs and related parts of speech from Afrikaans and ‘vernac’ in South African English


South African English (SAE) has been assimilating adverbs, adapting, calquing or loaning them from local languages for more than two centuries. The earliest recognisably English adverb in SAE is dead still (completely motionless), first seen in 1835, while the first from a black African language is yebo (yes) from isiZulu, first recorded in 1836. The earliest SAE adverb overall, however, is sommer (just, simply, only), from Afrikaans in 1786 (though it only achieved its current form in the 1960s). The second earliest is ja (yes), also from Afrikaans in 1832.

Indeed, of the adverbs in, more than half are from Afrikaans.

These Afrikaans-derived items have a number of discernible features:

1. (a) They are either taken directly from Afrikaans, with no or little apparent change in orthography or meaning (e.g. baie, bliksem, darem); or, (b) where they have been transformed into English words, they are either (i) influenced by Afrikaans (e.g. already, only, with), or (ii) adapted or calqued from that language (e.g. down, no what, so long).

2. They appear in SAE in three waves: (a) those entering the variety up to 1900 (e.g. ja, lekker, mos, nee, yes-no); (b) those doing so from the 1910s to the 1940s (e.g. asseblief, bietjie, ja-nee, voetstoets); and (c) those from the 1960s to the 1990s (e.g. doer, helse, verdomde, plus-minus). Using this timescale, it is also noticeable that relative to the number of actual loanwords from Afrikaans, which remains steady at 10-11 items per wave, the number of adaptations and calques decreases from 64% in the first wave to 10% in the second, and 27% in the third. That is, compared to earlier periods, SAE appears to have become more accepting of straight loans of adverbs from Afrikaans in the course of the twentieth century.

3. Some of them are (a) out of use, rare, or only used in specific communities (e.g. huistoe, soetjes, tog, voorwaarts, wragtig); while others are either (b) still only used colloquially or in slang (e.g. bakgat, nooit, skeef); or (c) fully assimilated and in current use, though mostly informally (e.g. ja, just now, nogal, now-now).

4. Interestingly, many of these adverbs are sometimes used:
(a) redundantly (e.g. already, (just) sommer)
(b) as intensifiers (e.g. maar, tog, verdomde)
(c) as interpollations (e.g. mos, nogal, tog)
(d) as interjections (e.g. bakgat, bliksem, huistoe, nooit), or
(e) in related modes, such as for affirmation and emphasis, or as expletives or stand-alone items (e.g. asseblief, ja, ja-nee, natuurlik, nee, wragtig, yes-no).

That is, some of them can be used as conjunctive adverbs, or do not otherwise need to be bound into the syntax of a sentence in order to be used appropriately – they may sometimes function as adverbs, and sometimes as conjunctions, or interjections. They may represent a syntactic excess, as much as they proclaim a semantic excess.

5. As interestingly, many of them have contemporary cognates or near cognates in black African languages, such as isiXhosa, isiZulu, and Setswana.


Until the mid-1990s – as represented in A Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles (1996) – Afrikaans was the source of 39.8% of all SAE lexical items (with words from Dutch providing another 18%), while actual English words made up just over 16%. IsiZulu, isiXhosa, Sesotho, and Setswana contributed 6.3%, 5%, 2%, and 1.7%, respectively. (For more statistics on SAE source languages, see here.)

Over the last two decades or more though, SAE has arguably been assimilating words and phrases from local African languages – together sometimes colloquially referred to as “vernac” – in greater numbers than ever before, so that these proportions have changed over this period – and are likely to continue to do so in future. I have already looked at some of these items on this blog: new words (dololo, eish, gqom, Mzansi, (just) nje); new meanings for some already “classical” SAE items (imbizo, indaba, lekgotla); and older words and phrases that have only come to prominence and been assimilated more recently (manga manga, umrabulo)1.

Below, I give further detail – part of speech, source, meaning – for akere, aweh, kaloku, kanti, mara, nje, phela, and vele, with examples of the use of each (I have mostly limited these to three quotations each, from the earliest instances I have found so far). Some of the lexical items described – aweh, kanti, and mara – may have more than one grammatical function. All but akere (an interjection) and mara (a conjunction), are primarily adverbs – though there might be an argument that akere tends to an adverbial function in some contexts. Mara is primarily a conjunction, but, as can be seen in the last example, where it occurs in a sentence final position, in informal contexts it can also be an adverb.

It is noticeable that some of these items are similar to existing SAE adverbs that have been assimilated from Afrikaans (as laid out in the first part of this post). The most obvious of these is the link between maar and mara – the latter is derived from the former. At a simple level, there are also semantic links between, on the one hand, mos, and on the other, akere, kanti, phela, and vele; between natuurlik, and phela and vele; and between sommer and nje – though the situation may be more complex than this.

In other words, these adverbs from “vernac” are of a kind that SAE readily pulls into its orbit and assimilates – and readily so in an unchanged form; the way they are being employed in English in South Africa is testament to this. It is likely that within a decade or less the lexical items described below will make their way into dictionaries of SAE; and it is possible that within a generation they will have become as frequent in SAE as Afrikaans-derived items such as ja, lekker, mos, nogal, sommer, and others are today.

However, as SAE overall is effectively an accumulation of its sub-varieties as they are used in various social and geographical contexts around South Africa, it is unlikely that the items discussed here, were they to be popularised to a greater degree, would necessarily displace existing SAE adverbs, as much as chisa nyama is unlikely to replace braai. Rather, they provide alternative formulations, and a greater degree of nuance in a richer lexicon.

Adverbs and related parts of speech from “vernac” – wordlist, descriptions and examples
(Note: that source links are currently live cannot be guaranteed in all cases.)

akere ^

intj. | Setswana, Sepedi (and Sesotho?): indeed, isn’t it?, right?

2010 (comment) I will still scroll down to check who commented (looking for Sundowns fools) to outdo them. Or kanjani Ernest? Thanks is a no no akere my outie? 3 Jul. (Source)

2012 (comment) I am right to say the negative about OPFC [sc. Orlando Pirates Football Club] is a medicine to your sickness? Akere you don’t lose hope, keep on with having that hope for next season. 13 May (Source)

2016 I grew arrogant. Remember I was not ugly anymore, akere? Else why would all these women sleep with an ugly man? (Source)

2017 (comment) Yes Sundownz have the best squad at the moment in the PSL, but how many playrz are more influential than Mahlambi? Few, akere? 23 Feb. (Source)

aweh ^

adv., intj. | isiXhosa? (“ewe”?): yes, ja, hello (an acknowledgment of presence or of statement)

2009 The Nikon D200 around my neck started to feel conspicuous and valuable. … Take it dude. Don’t stab me. As he gets close he changes his approach slightly and walks passed, lifting his left hand, clenched fist. “Aweh!” He says. 23 Dec. (Source)

2012 Do you guys have a bong around here hey? Please could we use it man… Aweh. 2 Oct. (Source)

2014 We’ve got South African musicians using the fact that the country is making better and better movies, to make better and better beats. Aweh, like it says. 3 Mar. (Source)

2017 TASTY: Hot cross buns come in choc chip nowadays – aweh! 5 Apr. (Source)

kaloku ^

adv. | isiXhosa: now then, at present, as you know, because, bear in mind, whatever

2000 Hayi kaloku don’t forget that Perez, myself and Design have taken our cut. (Dike: 252)

2009 (informant) Kaloku, these patients were brought by relatives and when you try and find out from them why did they come so late, they will state that they started with traditional healers. (Tembani: 301)

2017 You … will probably also meet your high school teacher’s kid who went to boarding school because kaloku their parents wouldn’t let them attend eza village schools they teach in. 15 Feb. (Source)

kanti ^

adv., intj., conj. | isiXhosa and isiZulu: after all, however, nevertheless, notwithstanding, whereas, in fact, and yet, so what, who cares

2010 (comment) Hawu King, kanti what makes the team best? 28 Nov. (Source)

2012 (comment) Kanti who are those criminals vele? The female criminal must learn to relax her feet when walking in peep toes. 1 Oct. (Source)

2016 (comment) How could Daily Sun interview witnesses and yet police are appealing for information about the killers? How does this police thing work kanti? 6 Sep. (Source)

mara ^

conj., adv. | from Afrikaans (“maar”): but, though, however

2007 (comment) Mara why Britney? Why is your life such a mess? 2 Nov. (Source)

2011 (comment) Mara how do you take a person’s GHOST for klipa? 1 Jun. (Source)

2017 South Africa has no chill mara. 8 Apr. (

nje ^

adv. | isiXhosa and isiZulu: so, just, thus, in this manner

2010 (blog) It was nice from the start; we used to go out; sleep in the hotel; play and even go to his place nje for more fun almost every day. 4 Aug (Source)

2013 The phone tucked under your belt is not ayoba, there are better places to keep your phone. Try using your pockets nje. 11 Apr. (Source)

2016 (comment) Those people who were cut off nje from their bodies I wonder if they were still alive in the process or what? 20 Jul. (Source)

phela ^

adv. | isiZulu: absolutely, actually, certainly, indeed, really, truly (also exists in isiXhosa as: only, alone, but)

2010 (comment) Sbu shud neva get breakfast @ metro yo yo, ppl will stop listening, phela he 4gets that yfm was like primary school & metrofm is post graduate from wits. 30 Nov. (Source)

2013 (comment) Shem Wicki, I still want to meet you, want your autograph phela… 14 Oct. (

2016 (comment) Kata you don’t name phela you discuss the name nje. After birth you give it. 28 Oct. (

vele ^

adv. | (recent or informal?) isiZulu: of course, naturally

2011 (comment) You can follow Habus my outie, vele I’m expecting 1 in 10 at least to see the ‘light’ 5 Feb. (Source)

2013 (comment) Out of all SA players that have left the country over the past 5 years how many have made names for themselves overseas vele? 13 Jun. (Source)

2017 (comment) Ag vele he is JZ’s right man but doesn’t mean he will always agree with him. 31 Mar. (Source)


^ 1. Of course, lexical items that make their way into SAE via initial use primarily by black South Africans are not all necessarily from isiZulu, isiXhosa, Setswana or other African languages – they may also be English- or other-language items that have been either coined or adapted to articulate South African realities, e.g. Ben 10, blesser, double up, fong kong, stop-nonsense, and what-what. (A “stop-nonsense” is a boundary wall (usually of precast slabs), or sometimes just a fence, that keeps trouble out of township yards.)


Dike, F. (2000) “Streetwalking and Company” in South African Theatre Journal, 14(1)

Tembani, N. M. (2009) “Strategies to Facilitate Collaboration between Allopathic and Traditional Health Practitioners” Unpublished D.Cur. thesis: Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University

© 2017 GQOM

​Izzit? – Lexicography, lexicographers, and the words they put in dictionaries

Two articles from the New York Times on lexicography, lexicographers, and the words they put in dictionaries.

Jennifer Schuessler talks to Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, the USA’s foremost dictionary publisher. The company traces its origins back to Noah Webster, America’s first lexicographer of renown, and the originator of its reformed spelling of numerous English words (“color” instead of “colour,” and so forth).

Stamper, author of the recent Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, takes Schuessler on a tour of the company’s basement-dungeon oddities (it is not at all uncommon for dictionary publishers to have weird items stacked in a dungeon-like basement). One of these is the Backward Index – hundreds of thousands of cards with words spelled backwards – produced between the 1930s and 1970s. It drove the typist insane.

Stamper contends that “it’s perfectly fine to hate parts of the language,” and points out that the function of a dictionary “isn’t to say what something is, but to objectively and comprehensively catalog the many different ways words are used by real people.”

In the second article on their interaction, the lexicographer reiterates this descriptive – rather than prescriptive – aim of dictionaries: “A dictionary is a record of the language as it’s used. It’s not a record of language as we wish it were used, or want it to be used.”

Take, for example, the word “irregardless,” which no one seems neutral about. It’s been on the margins of the English language for more than two centuries, and still causes fights between word geeks. Stamper describes it as being “like this barnacle that you can’t get off the hull of the language.” Whether you love or hate it, it looks like it’s here to stay. And that means it gets to be in the dictionary.

‘Eish’ in South African English: an analysis of the word in informal written public discourse, with a speculative enquiry into its etymology

The lexical item ‘eish,’ with a speculative enquiry into its etymology | Corpus linguistics and corpora | High-frequency SAE in the corpus of online comments | ‘Eish’ in informal written public discourse | The EISH-YOU collocation | Considering the EISH-YOU collocation in online comments as informal written public discourse | Conclusion

In what follows, I consider the lexical item “eish” as it is used in South African English (SAE), and speculate on its possible etymology, before using corpus linguistics to analyse the interjection’s collocation with “you” as it occurs in informal written public discourse.

The lexical item ‘eish,’ with a speculative enquiry into its etymology

“Eish” is a common South African expression1. It is an emphatic exclamation of surprise, disappointment, frustration, annoyance, disbelief, resignation, approbation, or less frequently, agreement or approval. The etymology of “eish” is not yet fully understood (see below), but the word has been used in English in South Africa since at least the 1990s (and, before that, in other South African languages)2:

1997 You might hear that so-and-so has gone (in an accident) and you think: “Eish! Our brothers are passing away.” (Informant in Campbell, 1997: 276)

2001 “Eish!” exclaimed Sobahle with vigour, “coal stoves make too much smoke in the house. And that makes a lot of work!” (Meintjes, 2001: 354-355)

“Eish” has already entered a number of dictionaries. Most significantly, it has an entry in the second edition of the Oxford South African Concise Dictionary (2010), and will have one in the (future) online-only second edition of A Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles (the online version of the 1996 first edition can be found here). The online international English dictionaries where it is listed include Oxford Dictionaries (English), Collins English Dictionary,, Wiktionary, the Online Slang Dictionary (OSD), and Urban Dictionary.

While OSD doesn’t give any information on the derivation of the word, in some of the (far-fetched and, frankly, wack) entries in Urban Dictionary, it is claimed it is from Xhosa. According to Wiktionary, it comes from Afrikaans. These are all wiki-type dictionaries, and each derivation claimed appears to be a shot in the dark. Collins and claim that the word comes from Zulu, which may be closer to the truth, but not the whole story. Oxford Dictionaries, on the other hand, says that is from Tsotsitaal. This, I think, is probably the best answer in the online dictionaries – the spelling of the word suggests that the orthography may have undergone a shift from a vernacular language (e.g. Zulu or Xhosa) to a patois (e.g. Tsotsitaal or Isicamtho3): “ei” does not occur as a unit in the Nguni languages, though it can in Tsotsitaal and Isicamtho (e.g. “heita”). Along with Afrikaans, Zulu has been a prime influencer of Tsotsitaal4. None of these entries, however, provide any evidence for their contentions, nor any information on how “eish” may have been derived from any of these languages, and what it might have meant originally.

The origin of “eish” is an etymological puzzle calling out if not for resolution, then at least proper research. Speculating on its roots, I trace out the following:

1. It’s possible that “eish” is derived from the Xhosa interjection “ishi” (or “ish”)5. “Ishi” is historically an interjection of surprise and prohibition, with the meaning “Go away! You tire me out!”

2. However, given the fact that Zulu is more prevalent than Xhosa, particularly in Gauteng, where Tsotsitaal and Isicamtho also originate (a matter I’ll return to in the next point), it’s more likely that “eish” is derived from one or more of a number of related Zulu interjections6:

a. “ashi,” an interjection of “very strong disapproval or negation”
b. “ishi,” an interjection of approval (“Just so”)
c. “yeshi,” an interjection of “surprise, admiration” (“Oh my! Just fancy!”)
d. “yishi,” an interjection of approval (“Just so”)

3. It is noticeable that these similar interjections all contain some seed of the senses in which “eish” is used in South Africa today. Taking the speculative line a step further, it might not be going too far to suggest that this multiplicity of deep Zulu interjections was somehow collated, simplified and “flattened out” in an uptake of one or more of them into Tsotsitaal or Isicamtho, so that their particular individual meanings were crowded together under the rubric of the single lexeme “eish,” and as a result, became intertwined in this one word.

4. It may also be the case that an interjection like “ishi,” which – if this line of reasoning is on track – must (at least phonetically) be one the frontrunners to be considered a precursor to “eish”; and which, according to the sources used here, has almost opposing meanings in Xhosa and Zulu, experienced a similar convergence of the senses pertaining in those two languages, so that this opposition was flattened and simplified in one new word. These factors would explain why “eish” is meaningful in so many different contexts, why it can index such a variety of emotions (frustration, disappointment, annoyance, etc.), and why, in separate uses, it can yoke together opposing meanings (e.g. disbelief and agreement, approval and approbation).

5. In summary, what I am suggesting is that one or more of these interjections dropped its final “-i” in the loanword-saturated informal speech of Zulu- and/or Xhosa-derived Tsotsitaal or Isicamtho. Most, if not all, loanwords in these languages are in noun class 5, where they get an “i-” prefix in their singular form. Dropping the final “-i” of the interjection would particularly be the case if the prefix of the following word was “i-”7. Thus, it is quite possible to have constructions like “Ash’, ipolisa!” or “Ish’, ipolisa!” – “Hey, (a) police(-man/-woman)!”8.

Corpus linguistics and corpora

Corpus linguistics is a sub-discipline within linguistics that involves analysing of large amounts of textual (and, increasingly, these days, sound and video) data. It works on a linguistic corpus (plural: corpora) – a collection of text files – using a type of analytic software usually referred to as a concordancer. Two popular concordancers are WordSmith and Laurence Anthony’s AntConc. WordSmith is fairly expensive, but AntConc, which has all you need in a concordancer, is free – you can download it here. My analysis covers the frequency of the lexical item “eish;” its most significant collocate (collocates are other words one can expect to find in proximity to the keyword, i.e. to the search term “eish”); and considers information retrievable from keyword-in-context (KWIC) concordances of “eish”, that is, of the use of the word in context of the sentence. Collocations and concordances in corpora are among the things corpus lexicographers look at to distinguish senses of a lexical item and to generate a dictionary description of the word.

The corpus I am working from contains just over 2.5-million words (tokens), just over 50 000 of them unique (types)9. The texts in the corpus were retrieved semi-automatically from online comments to news articles in 2014, most of them from IOL, as part of a short-lived corpus project at the Dictionary Unit for South African English. The corpus is not particularly large – for an example of a large corpus, see GloWbE (1.9-billion words) – but the material in it is all South African, all public, and all informal writing. I refer to the online comments as “public” and “informal” written discourse because they are, respectively, freely accessible, and not edited for publication. They are largely written in an informal style, and thus contain a fair amount of informal, colloquial and slang material that is not as likely to be found in written form elsewhere. (Informal written public discourse has a long history, going back to ancient graffiti, but it was not until the coming of the worldwide web in the 1990s, and more particularly, the advent of Web 2.0 in the latter part of last decade, that this type of language was freely retrievable and easily analysable in large quantities.)

High-frequency SAE in the corpus of online comments

SAE is low frequency relative to the rest of the words we use every day. Though it’s possible to find language that contains a high frequency of SAE, such as an Athol Fugard or a Paul Slabolepszy play, in general little of the language we use in English in South Africa is actual SAE. This fact is reflected in the corpus of online comments. Leaving aside acronyms and abbreviations (e.g. ANC, R, DA, EFF, ESKOM, BEE, etc.), which are among the most frequent SAE types in the corpus; phrases; and words that otherwise need to be disambiguated (e.g. BLACK, WHITE, WHITES, CAPE, BLACKS, SHAME, etc.), the most frequent SAE word of interest is APARTHEID (1 779 instances, or tokens), followed at some distance by VIVA (318), ZULU (317), EISH (314), RAND (275), CADRES (270), MADIBA (233), JA (216), CADRE (215), and COMRADE (188)10. What is noticeable about EISH here is that, for an informal word, it is fairly highly frequent, and occurs among other SAE words that are mostly more formal, or at least, not colloquial. “Eish” is both applicable in a wide variety of contexts, and – in this corpus – is used more frequently than many other informal SAE lexical items11.

‘Eish’ in informal written public discourse

Table 1 below shows the most frequent statistically significant collocates of EISH in the online comments corpus, down to a frequency of 5 left or right12. The collocates of a word (the keyword) are those words that tend to occur in the vicinity of the keyword in a corpus, here up to five words and the left (5L) and right of the keyword (5R).

Table 1

EISH collocates with 1 147 collocation types, making up 3 056 collocation tokens. The collocates in Table 1 represent the 41 most frequent collocation types (i.e. 3.6% of the collocation types), and their 391 collocation tokens (i.e. 12.8% of the collocation tokens). The most frequent of these collocates, by far, is YOU (85). Notice that by adding WENA (i.e. singular “you” in Xhosa and Zulu, 7) and U (6) to YOU, its prominence as a collocate of EISH is magnified, to the extent that it is more than six times more prevalent than the next most frequent (LOL). Put it this way: there are 51 449 other words in the corpus that EISH could cuddle up to, yet in the 5L-5R range, it only does so with 1 147 – and every 12th one of these is a second-person pronoun. Some other personal pronouns are also highly frequent: IT (15)13, and the first-person ME (11) and US (7); as are auxiliaries of the singular first-person pronoun: M (i.e. I’M, 7) and AM (7). In other words, “eish” attracts certain personal pronouns in statistically significant way. Below, I restrict the analysis to YOU.

The EISH-YOU collocation

Figure 1 below shows some examples of KWIC concordances in AntConc in which the EISH-YOU collocations are statistically significant.

Figure 1

The two most noticeable features about the 85 instances of EISH in these concordances are that it appears to have specific types of positioning in a sentence, and that the YOU element is mostly a direct address to another person.

On the first point: EISH occurs at the end of a sentence only 9.6% of the time. It occurs as a stand-alone interjection, with periods on either side of it (or a period before and an exclamation mark after), in 20.5% of cases. In 48.2% of the instances, EISH occurs at the beginning of a sentence, in a manner that suggests that functions pragmatically to set the tone for what follows. Furthermore, it is followed by an exclamation mark (immediately, or a few words down) only 15.7% of the time, suggesting that, on the whole, it does not rely on extreme punctuation to carry its load – it is not necessarily an interjection that is shouted out, but can be as effective somewhat muted.

On the second point: in the vast majority of cases, the YOU collocate is a direct address to another person: mostly, “eish” is being said to someone else (rather than being a generic stand-in for “one” or “anyone,” as in the last example below). This “other person” is, in general, another commenter, and this feature of “eish” may be an artefact of the anonymity and distance that is set up in the world of online comments by means of the masks of usernames and avatars. That is, it may be an artefact of the genre of informal written public discourse (think about the crassness of some graffiti, which it surely owes to the fact that the writer is absent when the passerby reads the text)14.

Here are some examples of EISH-YOU collocations from the corpus:

Eish… You seem to be late for your comprehension lessons.

Eish Liz, what you are saying is so true, and the whole thing is just too sad.

Eish baba, you musn’t steal the gravy.

Eish you are a closed book, I don’t if I should cheer you or BOOOO you.

Eish … are you trying show what a simpleton you are?

Eish but you are a fogon stoopid

Eish you are one huge moron

Eish, you are confusing his poor brain.

Eish, did you major in ‘Stupidity’ at UNITRA?

Then they say to you who burnt the library, apartheid made you burn the library. Then you say eish, APARTHEID!

Eish, no, you know, there is no crime in SA – we are free here

Considering the EISH-YOU collocation in online comments as informal written public discourse in South Africa

The South African online commenting community (if such a thing can be said to exist), is known to be fractious, antagonistic, and hostile. Even when the text producer is identifiable, such as on social media, some people, especially white South Africans, often don’t give a second thought to posting inflammatory and sometimes straight-up racist material. The incidents are well-known, make it into mainstream news, and don’t bear repeating here. White privilege may lead well-known liberal politicians to make narrow-minded and ahistorical comments, such as Western Cape Premier Helen Zille’s recent defence of colonialism on Twitter. (Like so many others, Zille has since “apologised,” claiming her posts were misconstrued.)

What has been as problematic are the conversation threads Zille’s remarks have spawned in social media forums like Facebook over the last few days, where numerous commenters have defended Zille’s views. What we are seeing is an inability of people making such remarks to attempt to understand the social, political, and historical environment of South Africa, and indeed, Africa as a whole. Many times, this is merely racism disguised as contempt.

The situation with news sites, and the reader comments made there, is even more dire. The possibility of anonymity, and hence the feeling of a lack of restraint, and the distance between the producers of these informal texts and their readers, is an important contributing factor to this direness. A few years back, many local news sites either disabled comments to their articles, or implemented active moderation practices due to the denigrating and disparaging nature of the texts posted there. At that time, the comments sections of News24 articles were notorious for if not in-your-face racist statements (though these were also sometimes found there), then comments that evidenced astounding levels of failure to empathise, or to attempt to progress beyond the commenters’ restricted view of the world. (People would sometimes set up dummy Facebook accounts and log in via these in order to be unaccountable for the material they posted.)

The Daily Maverick, one of the few sites that required commenters to use their RL identities – and attempted to sanction those who didn’t – has “suspended comments on the site” until “the interwebs figures [sic] out a better way to deal with the naughty kids in the class.” This message is present as a footer at the end of each of their article pages. It seems that not even their commenting requirements, and the threat of banning, could influence commenters to adopt appropriate etiquette and a mannered and sociable tone.

The Mail & Guardian Online has had moderation measures in place for years. Recently, they seem to have upped their game – yet, it is still possible to come across comments on the site that are arguably a “subtle,” indirect form of racism. At the same time, however, it doesn’t seem possible to post a comment that calls out such problems with other comments – “your comment is awaiting moderation” results in non-posting of the call-out comment.

(To my mind, these are not really attempts by online publishers to shut down racist discourses on “the interwebs” – these have proliferated. Rather, they are measures taken by the publishers to disassociate their brands with such discourses. These are not benevolent, progressive gestures; they are made from a position of self-interest.)

In the end, though, the problems of online comments as informal written public discourses in South Africa are not essentially ones of the possibilities for anonymity and distance provided by online technologies – rather, they are re-articulations of social problems, where people with certain levels of social comfort and privilege feel little need to reconstruct their attitudes and views towards people who, to their minds, are obviously not “like” them.

So where does “eish” come into all this? We’ve established that the most common collocation of EISH is the second-person pronoun (YOU, WENA, U). Within this group, EISH is often a sentence-initial tone-setter, and YOU is mostly used as a direct address to someone else (rather than a generic stand-in for “one”). The most salient difference between addressor and addressee in these comments is that the former is usually white, and the latter often black. Here, “eish” may function as an indicator of a type of abuse that is common in South African online communities. This ranges from a lack of respect for others, through a determined failure to understand other points of view, to talking down to people whose identities you don’t share, to more direct forms of abuse, as is evident in some of the examples of EISH-YOU collocations above. “Eish” itself is not directly abusive, and as a rebuke it is mild, yet it can be weaponised within a larger structure of disempowerment and inequality.15


The South African interjection “eish” is probably derived, via Tsotsitaal or Isicamtho, from one or more traditional Xhosa or Zulu interjections, most likely “ashi” or “ishi.” “Eish” is common to most if not all languages and demographic groups in South Africa and, in SAE, is probably the most frequently occurring informal term. The most frequent collocate of “eish” in the online comment data analysed here is “you,” where the latter usually occurs as a direct form of address, usually referring to another commenter. In the fractious South African online commenting community, the relationship between “eish” and “you” is potentially problematic as it can signal attitudes of superiority in the context of the inequalities in South African society.


1. ^ Along with “braai,” “ja,” “shame,” “sjoe,” “voetsek,” “yho,” and a few others (and variations of these), it appears to be in use in English and other South African languages across the full demographic spectrum.
2. ^ It is also used in Botswana, and may be used in other southern African countries.
3. ^ Bembe and Beukes (2007: 469) claim “eish” comes from “Is’camtho,” a more contemporary relative of Tsotsitaal. It may have existed in Tsotsitaal first and found its way into Isicamtho.
4. ^ There is less Afrikaans influence in Isicamtho.
5. ^ “Heje” (a form of “he” or “heke”) might also be a contender, though this is less likely. These are historically interjections of approbation or praise, where the latter has the meaning “Well! Right! Good! Well done!” For dictionary entries on these words, and the information on them presented here, see Kropf 1915: 147 and 167.
6. ^ For these entries, and the information on them presented here, see Doke and Vilakazi 1972: 13, 355, 878, and 881, respectively. There are also the following less likely contenders: “hoshi,” an interjection of surprise (305); “oshi,” an interjection of “disapproval, dislike, contempt” (“Ha”) (637); and “woshi,” an interjection of “surprise, admiration, excitement” (“Oh my! Just look!”), or of “contempt, depreciation” (“What nonsense! What an idea!”) (855).
7. ^ When the next word is prefixed by a different vowel, the two vowels combine to form a third which displaces the other two. So: “isiNgesi” (“English”), but “nga-” + “isiNgesi” = “ngesiNgesi” (“in English”).
8. ^ The informal interjections “ey” and “ai” may also have had a phonetic influence here.
9. ^ In other words, there are on average about 500 or so tokens of each type in the corpus. The reality though is that, as in everyday language, there are a relatively small number of words with extremely high frequencies (e.g. THE, TO, AND, etc.), a middling number with moderate frequencies (e.g. REAL, END, GUY, etc.), and an extremely large number with very low frequencies (e.g. MINGLE, RENOWN, BURGLE, etc.).
10. ^ “Cadre” is of course also a word in general English, where it refers to a group of people. What makes its use in South Africa particular is that it is invariably refers to an individual. (It is worth noting that, relative to their national demographic profile, white male South Africans are generally overrepresented in online comments. Their use of “cadre” is often not with the same tone as use by, say, government officials to refer to ANC cadres, and is often disparaging. The same probably goes for “viva” and “comrade.”) Of course, if one were to consider CADRE as a lemma (for a noun, the singular form, with all other forms of the lexical item grouped together with this), then there would be 485 instances of the lemma CADRE (CADRE + CADRES). Similarly, grouping the lexical items COMRADES (159 instances) and COMRADE, there would be 347 instances of the lemma COMRADE. As lemmas, these words – and the discourses in which they occur and co-fashion – are more prevalent than they appear at first sight.
11. ^ From here on, I use small caps for EISH when I am referring to the lexical item in the corpus.
12. ^ In Table 1, T = the total number of times a lexical item collocates with EISH, L = the number of times the collocate appears to the left of the keyword, and R = the number of times it occurs to the right. COLL. = the collocates, the lexical items, themselves. MI = mutual information score, a measure of statistical significance. The higher the MI score, the more likely it is that the nearby lexical item is a collocate. I have included in the table only items with MI ≥ 4 to ensure that I am dealing with collocates and not random co-occurrences. The scores are colour-blocked as follows: yellow – MI ≥ 4, but < 5; orange – MI ≥ 5, but < 6; red – MI ≥ 6, but < 9; purple – MI ≥ 9.
13. ^ In the corpus, the 15 instances of “it” as a statistically significant collocate of EISH are all written as ITS (all but one should in fact have an apostrophe). IT is more frequent (40), but it is not statistically significant (MI = 3.468). It may be the case that ITS is statistically significant because it is an error.
14. ^ I am thinking here less about graffiti as it occurs as a component of contemporary hip-hop, and more about a textual message (whether ancient or modern) tagged on a wall, or behind a public toilet door.
15. ^ In my experience, however, this is not how “eish” usually occurs in real life. If “you” is involved, it tends to be a generic “you” rather than the addressee (as in “Eish, you know, …”).


Bembe, M. P. & Anne-Marie Beukes (2007) “The Use of Slang by Black Youth in Gauteng” in Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies 25(4)

Campbell, C. (1997) “Migrancy, Masculine Identities and Aids: The Psychosocial Context of HIV Transmission on the South African Gold Mines” in Social Science & Medicine 45(2)

Dictionary Unit for South African English (1996) A Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles. Cape Town: Oxford University Press

Dictionary Unit for South African English (2010) Oxford South African Concise Dictionary. 2nd edition. Cape Town: Oxford University Press

Doke, C. M. & B. W. Vilakazi (1972) Zulu-English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press

Kropf, A. (1915) A Kafir-English Dictionary. 2nd ed. edited by Robert Godfrey. South Africa: Lovedale Mission Press

Meintjes, H. (2001) “‘Washing Machines Make Lazy Women’: Domestic Appliances and the Negotiation of Women’s Propriety in Soweto” in Journal of Material Culture 6

© GQOM 2017

Izzit? – More on language evolution: Open University’s animated ‘History of English’ video

More on the history of the English language, this time from The Open University in the form of an 11 minute animated video on YouTube.

The movie divides the salient eras of the evolution of the language into “chapters” – giving examples of the words that originated in each.

It starts with the Romans leaving Britain and – as with yesterday’s post – the arrival of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, and later, the Normans.

This time we move beyond archaic periods though: the middle chapters consider the effects that the King James bible, the works of Shakespeare, and the status of English as a language of science have had on its development.

Later chapters include English in the age of the British Empire, the coming into being of the first English dictionaries, American English, internet English, and global English – leading to the question, “Whose language is it anyway?”

Izzit? – ‘English is weird,’ and here’s the evidence

The strangeness of the English language is a matter of historical contingency, migration, conquest, and adaptation – this is the take out from an article on the abnormality of English by professor of linguistics at Columbia University John McWhorter. Writing in aeon, McWhorter fleshes out what English speakers, especially monolingual ones, may not be aware of: English is odd.

English does not have any close linguistic neighbours that would allow us to understand “half of what people are saying without training and the rest only with modest effort” as is the case with, say, German and Dutch, and Spanish and Portuguese. In fact, the closest one can get to English is Frisian, but even then that language is more like German than like English.

McWhorter takes us through a taxonomy of the weirdnesses of English, from a lack of gendered nouns; through the odd present-tense suffix for the third person singular (“She walks”) – and only that tense-person combination; to the use of “do” to express negation or questioning. In the first two cases, among the European languages derived from Indo-European, it’s only English that does this in this way; in the last, it’s an inheritance from Celtic languages (and it’s pretty much only English and the Celtic languages that do this). There’s also the atypical mismatch between pronunciation and spelling. While French may be said to suffer a similar problem, at least in French that mismatch is fairly standard, whereas in English it is definitely not – consider the now familiar examples of “though,” “through,” “thought,” and “thorough.”

In order to explain these eccentricities, McWhorter whips out a brief yet illuminating history of the English language. In summary, English started out as “a kind of German,” and first took influences from other languages when Angles, Saxons, and Jutes arrived in Britain. The people who were already there – and who remained in the majority – originally spoke Celtic languages, but pretty shortly they were speaking Old English. Old English and Celtic are quite different, and soon a fair amount of mangling was taking place.

Next, McWhorter writes, more people, this time speaking Old Norse, “came across the sea meaning business.” However, instead of foisting their language on the locals, they married native women and began to use English. Here’s the thing though: these were adults, and in an oral society it was never going to be easy for them to learn to speak the local language like a local. So they ended speaking “bad Old English” (mangling #2). As their children grew up they were faced with both this “bad Old English” and “real Old English” – “and pretty soon their bad Old English was real English” (mangling #3).

All these twists account for the “weirdnesses” – the dropped genders and the partial conjugations – mentioned above. The Vikings made English easier because they didn’t learn it “properly” (consider the effects of this history the next time someone talks to you about “proper English”). They also introduced a lot of new words, and half-broke the grammar, which is why today it’s okay to use dangling prepositions (i.e. ending a sentence with “from” or “with,” etc.)

Then the Normans arrived, conquered, and ruled for some time. They gave English myriad more new words, this time from French and Latin. One of the examples McWhorter uses is the addition of specific words for the meat of animals that have been slaughtered for food, such as pork from a pig and beef from a cow. This too has material social origins: “generally in Norman England, English-speaking labourers did the slaughtering for moneyed French speakers at table” – at the time it was a matter of class distinctions. From French and Latin, English also got, among many others, “existence” in addition to “life,” and “comprehend” in addition to the local “understand” – here too one can feel the heightened formality of the former terms of the pairs.

The result has been a “mongrel” vocabulary, a “firehose spray of words” from a number of distinct languages, and hence a high degree of lexical hybridity relative to most other European languages. (There were also other effects, like the different accenting of syllables depending on the grammatical form of the word, e.g. “TEM-pest,” but “tem-PEST-tuous”.)

Nearing his conclusion, McWhorter writes:

“Thus the story of English, from when it hit British shores 1 600 years ago to today, is that of a language becoming delightfully odd. Much more has happened to it in that time than to any of its relatives, or to most languages on Earth.” (Icelandic, on the other hand, has not changed much relative to its Old Norse origins more than a millennium ago.)

What makes English so different from other, related languages is that “it is deeply peculiar in the structural sense. And it became peculiar because of the slings and arrows – as well as caprices – of outrageous history.”

​Izzit? – F-bombs and other profanities are ‘central to the human experience’

Swearing. Cursing. Cussing. Profanity. There are certain times and certain states of mind that call out for an F-bomb or other kind of “rude word.” Over at The Conversation, Michael Adams, professor of English at Indiana University in Bloomington, and author of the book In Praise of Profanity asks, “Do we swear too much?”

Before I tell you more about what he’s saying, let me relate an anecdote. Once upon a time, right at the beginning of the century, at a media company in Cape Town where I worked as an editor, I had a designer colleague who used to drop some form of the word “fuck” into – literally – every sentence. At a minimum. An early morning, “Howzit?” would invariably get “Fucken A” as a response. Things weren’t just “lekker” or “kiff”, they were “fucken lekker” or “fucken kiff.” Something wasn’t just broken or badly done, it was “fucken fucked.” It happened sometimes that “This fucken thing’s fucken fucked.” *

Back then it was still a relatively new company, and most of the time we worked quite closely – and this kind of thing went on all day. All. Bloody. Day. After a while, I suppose, when I talking with him I picked up some of this habit and my language took on a more severely profane character – but I didn’t think I needed to tell the CEO, about paying advertisers sending us their advertising material, that “These fucken clients must get their shit in now.” … Anyway, the designer guy has since got married, settled down, and become a dad. He doesn’t swear so much anymore.

It’s this kind of thing that Adams is interested in when he asks, “Do we swear too much?” Adams references cursing expert Timothy Jay to the effect that “profanity amounts to roughly 0.5 percent of the average speaker’s daily verbal output.” On average, that’s one out of every 200 words – not a lot. Moreover, compared to how slang proliferates, the actual core vocabulary of profanity is small, with new forms usually based on established words.

There’s some interesting historical background as to when the swearwords we still use today first entered the English language. While “shit” was already present in Old English, “fuck” is only found in English from the late 15th century. “Oh, shit!” is much later, from the middle of the 1800s. Similarly, “bitch” is found in English early, from around 1400, but “son of a bitch” only shows up 300 years later.

Adams’ primary point is that it’s precisely because most people don’t swear so much that profanity is not going away. Rather, he claims, it is central to human experience.

* In Adams’ article, the swearwords are not written out in full. Instead “fuck,” for example, is written “f-k”. It’s not clear whether this is the author’s preference, or The Conversation’s editorial policy. I haven’t felt the need to engage in this kind of distraction – I hope you’re not offended.

​Izzit? – Cracking Trumpspeak on Twitter: what does the POTUS mean by ‘bad,’ ‘smart,’ ‘sorry,’ ‘ungrateful’? … Probably not what you think

Twitter is a favourite forum of US President Donald Trump. He is known for using the 140 characters per tweet to talk up the things he likes, but more so to rant about things he doesn’t. At The Guardian, Steven Poole has produced “a handy guide to the topsy-turvy world of Trumpspeak” on the social media platform.

Acknowledging that the new POTUS has “made Twitter great again,” Poole gets under the surface of the Trump messages, examining mostly single-word items that tend to occur most frequently. Adjectives and nouns, often in the form of epigrammatic approvals or rebukes, are given a brief interpretation (e.g. “Great: under the permanent control of Donald Trump”), and then each is analysed in context and in further detail.

Items given the treatment are: bad, biased, deal, dishonest, dumb, enjoy, failing, fake news, great, horrible, over-rated, sad, smart, so, so-called, sorry, trouble, and ungrateful. The results are sometimes humorous accounts of what was comical material in the first place.

Poole does not disclose his methodology, but he may well be working from a linguistic corpus of the tweets. The mass of data compiled in a corpus allows analysts to adapt the granularity of scrutiny from a bird’s-eye view of (in this case, likely) thousands of items, down to particular phrases, words, or even parts of words. In doing so, they can abstract concise meanings for particular items (lexicographers also use corpora to assist in identifying new senses of words). As with the example of “great,” with Trump these are not necessarily what most people agree the word means.

​Izzit? – The murky world of the unknown laws of language

Why do we say “tick-tock” for the sound a clock makes, and never “tock-tick”? Why “big old house” and never “old big house”? At, Mark Forsyth, author of The Elements of Eloquence, explains that native English speakers follow certain language rules every day, but mostly without knowing the rules – or even that there is a rule. 

The reason in the first case is that there is a law we follow when reduplicating sounds. “Zag-zig”? No, never. For the second, there is a law that governs the order of consecutive adjectives before a noun. We’re unaware of it until someone takes the trouble to point it out – but we use it unproblematically every time we describe the properties of something. Not following the rules makes what you’re saying sound really odd.

In case you thought that was all, Forsyth also explains why – and how – you can create a limerick that has no rhymes but is still recognisable to anyone as a limerick. Try this at home.

Heads & tails: ‘kop’ and ‘gat’ in South African English

Simple forms | Adapted and compound forms of kop | More, mostly recent coinages using kop | An interesting subset … | Adapted and compound forms of gat | More uses of gat

The words “kop” and “gat” from Afrikaans are often used in South African English, either alone or with other words to form compounds1.

Kop literally means “head,” though when used alone in South African English, it and the diminutive koppie typically refer to a topographical feature – a hill or peak, and a hillock, respectively. Colloquially, it can also mean intelligence (“Use your kop, man!”); and in slang, a head-butt (“He kopped the guy stukkend”). I consider other contemporary adapted forms below.

Gat, on the other hand, as DSAE has it, is from the Afrikaans for “hole,” or “vent” or “anus.” Historically, gat would have referred to “a large pool in a river” or a large “depression in the ground,” though these are now obsolete in SAE, surviving only in place names. A more popular slang translation of the word, often used to express disgust, would simply be “backside” – or “arse” (as DSAE indicates at bakgat) – “Your gat, man!” etc.

Adapted and compound forms of kop

As an element in a compound, kop often occurs in South African place names – so that around the country one finds places called Koppiestal, Melville Koppies, Oppikoppi, Spion Kop, Swartkops, Weskoppies, and Wonderkop, among others. It is also found in animal and plant names2.

Things become more interesting when, in compound forms, kop is used to refer to attributes of people. DSAE contains a number of these:

bleskop – a bald head, or a bald-headed person

cheese-kop – (a person with) closely-cropped hair, or a shaven head (These days the term more frequently occurs as chiskop, as if it has taken a detour into the present via tsotsitaal.)

2010 He’s wearing expensive-looking glasses and a suit as sharp as the razored edge of his chiskop quiff. (Beukes: 12)

2013 Real talent gets the racism and sexism into one lyric. And DJs seem to miss the irony, saying: “Fight sexism, and next up Pitbull.” Misogyny with a chiskop. (26 Aug. Source)

domkop – a fool, idiot; foolish, stupid

2012 (comment) I say down with Juju, Down with Zuma, Down with Mathale, we don’t need these three domkops – FOWARD WITH NATIONALIZATION! (30 Aug. Source)

houtkop – an insulting word for a black African person (This term is highly offensive and explicitly racist in its singular application to black people. Yet one still sees it in the murkier depths of the internet. In the quotation, notice how “0” (zero) is used instead of “o” in order to avoid possible automated blacklisting of the comment.)

2016 (comment) oh so coloureds are the majority in prison??? Stop being a h0utkop…Your ppl overcrowd everything, incl prison. Nyaope smoking killing rapists. (28 Oct. Source)

Kaaskop – a derogatory nickname for a Dutch person

malkop – crazy, or a crazy or crazed person

skop – a smiley (likely a contraction of “skaap se kop,” i.e. sheep’s head)

More, mostly recent coinages using kop

There are a number of more recent coinages that include kop. Some of these may well remain nonce or not be assimilated into South African English (note the quotation marks and use of italics); yet what they show is the extension of the range of application of the base word, and its durability in creating new meanings. They include:


2015 A ‘katkop’ is actually a truly delicious, ridiculously fattening worst nightmare of prof Tim Noakes, consisting of deep-fried ‘slap-chips’ stuffed into an emptied-out half of a white bread loaf. (26 Jan. Source)

kopgeld – bounty (literally, “head money”)

1987 Members [sc. of Koevoet, the apartheid-era police counter-insurgency unit] were paid ‘kopgeld’ bounty money for each guerilla killed. (Sutherland: 26)

1997 We know from subsequent testimony that some people were paid R1,000-00 a head for each one of these people that were killed – some people got R7,000-00 – kopgeld. (Source)

2011 Each Koevoet [sc. member of Koevoet] involved in the killings received a monetary reward. According the TRC reports, between R1000 and R2000 kopgeld or “cash-for-corpses” reward was paid. (Shigwedha: 162)

2016 Will the SAPS pay us a reward? (I haven’t been able to claim “kopgeld” in many years…). (15 Feb. Source)

loskop – (a person who is) scatterbrained, absent-minded, forgetful

2009 I found my escape in day dreaming. I guess that’s why some of the teachers used to call me “loskop.” (Cohen: 13)

An interesting subset …

An interesting subset of these recent coinages contains slang items in which kop has been used in a more figurative sense to mean something like an adherent of a style or subculture, in the same way as “head” is sometimes used in English: hip-hop head, metalhead, petrolhead, etc. The instances of kop used in this manner that I have come across so far involve drug, weight-training, and music subcultures:

buttonkop – a user or abuser of the drug Mandrax (methaqualone), which in South African slang is often referred to as “buttons” due to its tablet form

2011 If you’re hanging out with untrustworthy button koppe, as most of them are, while you’re in your post white pipe dwaal, one of your mates might sidle up to you, empty your pockets and steel your cream. (Source)

musclekop – a weight-training enthusiast, a jock

2012 We end up at Carlo Mombeli’s gig at Zoo Lake. Some off-his-face roid-ranger’s motor-mouthing about Carlo in the parking lot. Small James and JahNoDead are volatile drunks. They dig Carlo. They hate jocks. They circle musclekop. They can smell blood. Small James is sharpening the rim of his launch-issue metal jail plate on the tar. (29 Oct. Source)

tikkop – a user or abuser of crystal meth (methamphetamine), which in South African slang is commonly referred to as “tik” (apparently due to the sound made by the glass pipe in which it is smoked as it heats up)

2012 So anyway, rehab wasn’t too bad. It was a lot like the low security Swedish prison where I imagine Mikael Blomkvist served his time in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, only with more tik-koppe. (29 Mar. Source)

trancekop – a trance music enthusiast, or things related to this subculture

2012 At the Village Green, one can find everything from R15 Chow Mein, hippie capitalists floating tie-die merchandise for R300 a pop, trancekop wares and a small group of hip new designers from across the country like Cape Town’s Intsangu brand. (13 Jul. Source)

Adapted and compound forms of gat

Gat has as rich a history in South African English as does kop. While the number of compound items containing gat may not be as great as kop, gat makes up for this with its explicit loadedness. With the exception of “bakgat” (which probably has a different etymology), you must know you are being insulted if someone goois a word containing gat in your direction. Those in DSAE are:

bakgat – good, excellent, or an exclamation of approval

gatkruip – to be obsequious, ingratiating

2016 “I see these white guys. I am in a senior position at my company. They don’t know that. When you walk into the meeting, they disregard you. Once they realize you are in a higher position than them, they change!” He laughs raucously. “They wring their hands and gatkruip. ‘Ja Meneer, do you want coffee, Meneer,’ they say with those limp white handshakes of theirs. Fuck them.” (10 Feb. Source)

gatvol – fed up, annoyed (This is one of the most common of the words listed here.)

2012 People are rather crowded with the sea and mountain limiting the space for movement, which means they end up a bit gatvol with each other’s company and start fighting about whether Cape Town is, in fact, awesome or awful. (15 Feb. Source)

2013 According to these pundits, the mood of millions of South Africans is as unmistakable as the message is clear: we are gatvol of the ANC. (20 Jun. Source)

2016 Polls before the referendum repeatedly showed that disenchanted Brits simply didn’t care what experts had to say on the matter. They were gatvol with “elites” telling them what to do and think. (28 Oct. Source)

hardegat – stubborn, obstinate; a person with these characteristics

2014 After I refused to give Pieter Le Roux my ID, he called me a ‘hardegat’ before proceeding to assault me,” he said. (22 Apr. Source)

kaalgat – naked

2012 (comment) Will the “melee” be arranged in a pool with wet t-shirts, kaalgat in a mud bath, or draped over a sushi bar? (29 Aug. Source)

slapgat – slovenly, lackadaisical, half-arsed; someone or something with these characteristics

2012 Amakhosi’s slapgat MTN8 exit has put new coach Stuart Baxter in the dogbox before his league programme has even begun. (10 Aug. Source)

windgat – full of oneself, self-important; a braggart or show-off, especially someone who drives a vehicle recklessly

2011 (headline) 2011 Chev Lumina more windgat?(1 Apr. Source)

(I have also recently heard an elliptical derivation of this word used as an adverb: “We don’t drive windly here.”)

More uses of gat

Over and above the established uses of gat in compound form, here are a few others that I have come across in the last while:

gatmaker – someone who makes a fool of themselves (who makes an arse of themselves)

2016 (post) We need a dignified place in public life and discourse. We need a stop to being seen as gatmakers and drunks. (Nov. Source: Facebook)

gomgat – lout, lowlife; loutish

1985 ‘I shot up this butcher shop …’ ‘Why? Why a butcher shop, for Christ’s sake?’ ‘Man, the butcher was there. He didn’t mind.’ ‘But why? Why did you do such a stupid, gomgat thing?’ I asked. (in Gray: 291)

2012 “You are starting to look common,” she said. I think she even used the word gomgat. Not like it mattered to me. I’ll admit it – I have a thing for tattoos. (19 Jan. Source)

2013 (comment) Only gomgatte that do childish things like this. Pay you rat bastard! (5 Sep. Source)


1. Note on pronunciation: the “o” in “kop” is an Afrikaans “o” (like a French “o,” not an English one); thus in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA): kɔp. The “g” in “gat” is an Afrikaans “g,” guttural like the “ch” in the Scots word “loch,” thus in IPA: xat. (On the whole, “gat” rhymes with the English word “but.”)

2. I do not detail these here. Examples include “bakkop,” “dikkop,” and “hamerkop.” Further information on them can be found in DSAE. With reference to topography, kop also occurs as “kranskoppie” and “spitskop.”


Beukes, L. (2010) Zoo City. Johannesburg: Jacana Media (Preview in Google Books)

Cohen, J. (2009) The Astonishing Power of Story. (Preview in Google Books)

Gray, S. (ed.) (1985) The Penguin Book of South African Short Stories. Johannesburg: Penguin

Shigwedha, V. A. (2011) “Enduring Suffering: The Cassinga Massacre of Namibian Exiles in 1978 and the Conflicts between Survivors’ Memories and Testimonies” Unpublished PhD thesis: University of the Western Cape (Available here)

Sutherland, J. (1987) “Police Admit Torture” in Work in Progress, 47


© GQOM 2017

Izzit? – February is language month: diarise the 21st

The Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) has declared February “Language Month,” writes Mmanaledi Mataboge-Mashetla in City Press.

While teaching in mother-tongue languages in South Africa was relegated to the backburner early in the democratic era, these days more South Africans are becoming conscious of the worth of their mother tongue and more “protective of this valued part of their identity,” she says, citing debates on foundation-phase mother-tongue teaching.

PanSALB is encouraging South Africans to use their mother tongue in the course of February, as part of a “’28 days of language activism’ crusade.” The aim is to recognise “the importance of preserving African languages while promoting multilingualism.”

Having been proclaimed by Unesco in 1999, International Mother Tongue Day – February 21 – has been celebrated annually since 2000.

Events organised by PanSALB to observe Language Month include dictionary promotion activities in Johannesburg (6-10 February), public hearings in Pretoria (from 13 February), and a public lecture and awards ceremony to bring the campaign to a close on the last day of the month.