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


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s