​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 bbc.com, 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. Lulu.com. (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

Image: pixabay.com

© 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.

Izzit? – ‘Monolingual ghettos’ make for dire science

The Economist writes that there are both advantages and disadvantages to having English as an academic lingua franca. While there are benefits to non-anglophone scholars learning English, there are also concerns that a “monolingual ghetto” is “bad for science.” 

The article in The Economist is based on a paper published in the journal PLOS Biology, which found that nearly two thirds of the papers containing the terms “conservation” and “biodiversity” and accessible through Google Scholar were in English, with Spanish coming a distant second.

The article mentions the example of work done in Chinese in 2004 on the transfer of H5N1 flu from birds to pigs. The paper went largely unread outside China while “critical time was lost.”

The solution, says the writer (or writers) of the article, is “to encourage multiculturalism wherever practical.” Both anglophone and non-anglophone scholars should ensure the abstracts and keywords of their papers are available in other languages, while specialised machine translation systems also have a role to play.

Izzit? – English words for drink and drinking

At bbc.com, Susie Dent writes that the English language has 3000 words for alcohol and drunkenness. Did you know that the word “booze” has been in use for more than 500 years? And “alcohol” for 800?

Dent describes a variety of the words and phrases, giving histories and etymologies for a number of them. Some of the items explored are those for purveyors of liquor; the state of being drunk (“ramsquaddled” or “osfusticated,” anyone?); or of being hungover (“crapulent” or “cropsick”); supposed cures for a hangover (“hair of the dog”); and abstaining from alcohol (“tee-totallism”).

In addition, there are explanations of expressions such “drunk as a lord,” its link to the expletive “bloody,” and how “lampoon” is related to all of this; as well as how “grog” came into the picture (based on the nickname of an eighteenth-century English admiral).

South Africans, never a bunch to shy away from a quart – that’s a South Africanism, by the way – a papsak of wine, or scale of skokiaan, have similarly coloured local English with a multitude of terms for booze, boozing and being hungover. The result: phuza-face after phuza Thursday.

As a synonym for quart (a 750ml bottle of beer), ngudu is beginning to make an appearance in South African English – and, of course, a ngudu of Carling Black Label beer is known as a Zamalek. I’ll explore newer items like these in a post next week (look out for “What is SA bringing to the party?“), but for now here are a few more older examples – from among many! – in the online A Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles:

babalaas, beer-drink, Cape smoke, Dom Pedro, dop, dronkie, half-jack, kill-me-quick, ladies’ bar, nadors, phuza, regmaker, shebeen, and sundowner.

Izzit? – ​George Orwell on Newspeak in his 1984 dystopia

In the wake of the rise of setting out “alternative facts” as US government practice, and Amazon’s reported sell-out of George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 days after it became their number-one seller, Josh Jones at Open Culture delves into “Newspeak” – the official language of Oceania, the totalitarian future state in which 1984 is set.

Orwell’s novel is the origin of the now famous phrase “Big Brother is watching you.” In it’s opening pages, as the clocks strike thirteen, we are introduced to Winston Smith, protagonist, and his place of work, the Ministry of Truth, a giant pyramidal building with the three slogans of the all-encompassing Party “picked out on its white face in elegant lettering”:


(Very alt-facty this Newspeak.)

Jones is less concerned with the novel itself than with Orwell’s appendix to it, entitled “The Principles of Newspeak,” where the author lays out the background to how the Party uses Newspeak

a language designed by the government to influence the way people think through the words available to them. The language, which limits free thought and prevents ‘thought crimes,’ is promoted by the Ministry of Truth, a government department responsible for propaganda and historical revisionism.

“The Principles of Newspeak” is not a long document, but if you’re not going to read it right now, Jones provides a useful overview. Sometime soon though you ought to read 1984 itself.

​Izzit? – Elvish, Dothraki, or Esperanto?

Writing in The Conversation, Philip Seargeant argues that The Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tokien’s imaginary languages have had more impact on human society than the artificial language Esperanto created Ludwik Zamenhof in the late nineteenth century. 

For Zamenhof, a universal language not linked to one particular nation could be a means to unite humanity and ensure peaceful co-existence; yet Zamenhof failed to see this in his lifetime as Europe began tearing itself apart with the first world war. 

Tolkien, on the other hand, used the “conlangs” he invented to provide the foundational element on which he based his stories. 

Seargeant reasons that Esperanto has had less of an impact because of what he calls “a fundamental flaw built into its very conception.” In the comments section, many of the readers of the article disagree with him and provide counter-arguments for why the opposite is the case.

​Izzit? – New Google Translate system enables ‘zero-shot’ translation

Over at the Google research blog, researchers describe the new system Google Translate uses to deal with translation queries (there’s also a link to a longer paper with more detail). 

A new translation system has been required due to the scale at which Google Translate operates – it now supports more than 100 languages and translates more than 140 billion words every day. 

The “zero-shot” aspect of the development means that the system can generate translations from language A to language C without it having to be prompted with examples of translations between these languages. Previously, it first translated from language A to language B, and then from language B to language C, where A-B and B-C had known qualities. 

The researchers also consider whether the success of the zero-shot system means that it is learning an “interlingua” – “a common representation in which sentences with the same meaning are represented in similar ways regardless of language.”

South Africa’s culture of umrabulo


Meaning and etymology

Umrabulo is a term that has been in use in South Africa at least since the 1980s – or possibly the 1970s – to denote political discussion or debate, and thus political education. These are the primary senses in which it is employed, though its most prominent contemporary use is as the title of the African National Congress (ANC) journal founded in the mid-1990s.

Umrabulo has also been glossed as “consciousness raising” (Mangcu 2009: 50) or “ideological training” (Nehawu 2016: 11). In addition, less frequently it may refer to the political classes in which such debate and subsequent education occur, the political analysis undertaken in such an environment, or the political literature studied there.

In these primary senses as we know it today, umrabulo was apparently first a practice among prisoners on Robben Island (see quote [2] by Nelson Mandela below), then as well among anti-apartheid prisoners and activists elsewhere in the country. That is, it originated as part of South Africa’s anti-apartheid liberation discourse.

Etymologically, the word harks back to customs among the Xhosa people of the Eastern Cape. At a traditional beerdrink, one would take a sip of the drink (“-rhabula”) and then hand the container to someone else to drink (“-rhabulisa”)1. It is from this complex of verbs that the noun “umrabulo” arose2 – and it is as a result of this relation that one can also interpret umrabulo to mean “sipping from the cup of knowledge” and “knowledge sharing.”

It is not clear whether its application as a noun, meaning discussion or debate, was a feature of these events, or whether it was later coined by prisoners of apartheid to mean political discussions. Yet its import is fairly clear: the conversations that take place among people gathered to drink beer or to impart political education – along the lines of the symposia of classical Greece.

Umrabulo in English in South Africa

Umrabulo is not an especially frequent term in South African English. Yet my research shows that it has been in use for at least the last 20 years3. The earliest instances in the dataset of 40 quotations I have found so far are as follows:

[1] 1997 Umrabulo ruled in the street committee, / Debate raged through SRCs, and church halls, / Even the burial ground became / Lekgotla. (Cronin: 21)

[2] 1997 I will … have more time to continue the debates … which the 20 years of umrabulo on the Island could not resolve. (20 Dec. Source)

[3] 1998 In a society like our own … there are powerful traditions of oral culture (speech-making, funeral orations, song, poetry, and just plain umrabulo). (Source)

Each of these examples gives us further insight into the history of umrabulo. First, in Jeremy Cronin’s poem “The miracle of fishes” in [1] there is the assertion that the practice of umrabulo was a popular one in the anti-apartheid struggle of the 1980s. Second, in Mandela’s closing address at the ANC’s 50th national conference in (then) Mafikeng in [2], there is the implication that the practice of umrabulo “on the Island” dates from at least the early 1970s. (However, what is not given in either of these examples is explicit confirmation that the term umrabulo was used for these practices.) Third, in the article from The African Communist in [3], the use of “plain” suggests that the practice of umrabulo was familiar and commonplace. In the same vein, 10% of the examples of umrabulo in the dataset refer to a “culture of” umrabulo or debate.

Apart from the fact that umrabulo is not (on average over the last two decades) an especially frequent word in English in South Africa, two other characteristics of its use would be borne in mind by lexicographers when considering whether it is in fact a South African English (SAE) word. The first of these is that the occurrence of umrabulo is often glossed in the text in which it occurs; that is, a meaning, translation or other description of the term is often given alongside its use. This is the case in 40% of the examples in the dataset. (The glosses to the more recent occurrences of umrabulo suggest that the concept is something that has had to be retrieved for a contemporary, perhaps younger, audience after a period of non-use. I deal with matters of this kind below.) Secondly, in nearly a quarter of the quotations, the word evidences some kind of typographical marking – either it is placed in quotation marks or it is italicised.

Both these factors can suggest that it is not fully assimilated into SAE: the first in that it needs to be explained, and the second in that it is made to stand out from the rest of the text as foreign. My own feeling is that a history of 20 years of use – probably longer – in English in SA trumps glosses and typography. This is especially the case given that 60% of the instances in the dataset date from 2009-2016, and 42.5% from 2012-2016. These are, respectively, 50% and 70% higher than the average frequency for those periods (i.e. of 40 occurrences over 20 years).

Development of a concept

In looking at the examples in the dataset, it is fairly evident that applications of umrabulo have undergone some changes over the last 20 years. Just over 30% of the instances refer to the past, in the main to the historical practice of umrabulo by political prisoners and activists during the apartheid era (only one of these reports an umrabulo session having happened in the recent past). More than three quarters of these occur during the 1997-2009 period.

Nearly 30% of the instances refer to the future, usually in an abstract manner – umrabulo as something that is necessary and needs to happen, as something that is not presently practised but should be revived. Nearly three quarters of these occur during the 2010-2016 period.

Another 12.5% refer to umrabulo as something that will be happening in the near future. This kind of reference is concrete, now pointing to an organised event rather than to an abstract need. All of these instances occur in the 2012-2016 period and indicate events organised by the ANC and allied organisations (and thus a component of a politically authorised discourse).

While this could use some further research, there thus seem to be delineable changes in how the concept of umrabulo has been applied in the last two decades: first as a recalling of an historical practice; then as a noting of the contemporary absence of that practice and the expressed desire for its restoration; and finally as the official reinstitution of the practice, although now in a somewhat different form. (For example, one wonders whether dialogue and debate are still an intrinsic part of umrabulo in this recent form, or whether it is now merely a matter of government and party officials telling an audience how things are.)


Umrabulo is a term that has been used in English in South Africa for at least 20 years. It is probable that it was also used in English during the apartheid era, though further research is needed to confirm this. As it is employed most frequently it refers to political debate and the conscientisation that this may bring.

Though it is not a frequent item in SA English, it has become more frequent in the last decade. At the same time, the way that is being used has changed, and it is possible that its (re)insertion into popular discourse in English may bring with it the baggage that comes with being a component of official discourse.

Further examples of use:

As a noun:

[4] 2000 The “postapartheid narrative” … is in significant part the story of the emergence of a culture of debate, “umrabulo,” issuing in a series of protocols, white papers, parliamentary bills, and in 1996 a Constitution. (Attwell & Harlow: 1)

[5] 2002 Last year, the SACP celebrated its 80th anniversary …. 80 years of worker education pioneered in night schools …. 80 years of political umrabulo.

[6] 2003 The culture of umrabulo remains of central importance in the work I do … It built consciousness that I must prepare myself, and it gave me hope. (Source)

[7] 2003 The vibrant ‘workers coach’ in the trains where programmes of revolutionary songs, political analysis and announcements on events were spear-headed by COSATU – mobile Umrabulo. (Matshikiza: 92)

[8] 2005 Each part of the prison [sc. Robben Island] had its own Umrabulo (i.e. political discussions) and formal courses of study of ANC history as well as Marxism. (Suttner: 278)

[9] 2009 The commissar’s role is above all political. It is about introducing political discussion, democratic debate, umrabulo, learning from each other in the midst of every situation (Cronin: 104)

[10] 2010 The spring school …. consisted of xenophobia workshop, umrabulo, knowledge hunt, electives, Heritage Day celebrations and an open day. (1 Oct. Source)

[11] 2012 It is critical to remember the real ANC that we know created a platform on which dialogue, quality debates and umrabulo are the cornerstones of the party’s survival (25 May. Source)

[12] c2013 He started reading literature popular [sic] known as “UMRABULO,” also attending secret political meetings and discussions. (Source)

[13] 2015 He was enrolled at the local Badirile High School and immediately set about spreading the message of liberation politics. He also convened night meetings at which umrabulo (political discussions) took place. (11 Dec. Source)

[14] 2016 Dr Somadoda Fikeni will be giving Umrabulo (a Knowledge Sharing). (4 Dec. Source)

As an attributive noun:

[15] 2003 There are white poets who don’t conform … Jeremy Cronin and his concept of umrabulo poetics, the experiments of Ari Sitas, and so on. (Sole in Lewis: 6)

[16] 2012 Inside prison, Madiba together with … other leaders of the ANC, … virtually turned vice into virtue, a prison into a political school which through uMrabulo political education produced many graduates. (25 Jul. Source)

[17] 2015 People focus … To revive and strengthen advocacy in institutions through, among others, “Umrabulo” campaigns that would also target Managers. (Source)

[18] 2016 The SACP Linda Jabane District will host a night vigil Umrabulo session … aimed at … defending our revolutionary gains and advancing our revolution. (13 Dec. Source)


1. McAllister 1986: 366; Pahl 1989: 112 & 113. The infinitive forms of these verbs are “ukurhabula” and “ukurhabulisa.” Interestingly, Pahl also has entries for “ukuxambula” and “ ukuxambulisana,” to “be engaged in a difficult, serious or heated debate, argument or cross-examination” and to “engage in, be engaged in a heated debate,” respectively. Though the similarity to the first two verbs may be incidental (or the misperception of a non-speaker of isiXhosa), they have a semantic resonance with the topic at hand.

2. I have not come across the noun “umrabulo” in the Xhosa-English dictionaries I looked at: Kropf 1899 & 1915, and Pahl 1989. This suggests that it is not an part of the historical isiXhosa lexicon, but is more likely a later coinage in political discourse.

3. These 40 instances of umrabulo used in English were retrieved via a Google search of the web and Google Books. There are likely more to be found by other means, including from the pre-democratic period. This dataset of 40 examples forms the basis of the analysis that follows and is, I think, large enough to draw some conclusions about the use of the word in English in South Africa. I have specifically excluded from the dataset references to the title of the ANC journal and other cases where it is used as a name or title.


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Nehawu (2016) “SACP Linda Jabane Free Ideological Training” in Nehawu Weekly International Monitor, vol. 4, no. 10, 13 December (Available here)

Pahl, H. W. (ed.) (1989) The Greater Dictionary of Xhosa, vol. 3: Q-Z. Alice: University of Fort Hare

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