Love in a seven-50 mil bottle: quart, ngudu, and Zamalek—three words for a big beer in SA English

Three words can be used to describe a 750ml bottle of beer in South Africa. One, quart, involves a historical misapplication of the name of the imperial unit of measure to another, newer, metric quantity; it has for some time now been the standard term for this size beer bottle. The second, ngudu, from one or more of the Nguni languages, is a more recent addition to the lexicon of SA English. Both are generic terms referring to any beer, or beer bottle, of that size. The third, Zamalek, the name of an Egyptian football club, on the other hand, refers to a specific size of a specific brand of beer.


In general, the word quart in English is best known as representing an imperial unit of capacity—two pints, a quarter gallon (1.13 litres in the UK; 0.94 in the US)—or as a vessel having that capacity. In most well-known online dictionaries by international publishers these senses are the most salient. Quart, where it applies as a unit of measurement of beer or whatever, is in broad use in the world’s most populous English-speaking regions.

In South Africa, on the other hand, quart is the established word for a 750ml bottle of beer—this size beer bottle is not conventionally known by another name.

quart_google_results_page; Google search results page for quart in South Africa

Results of a Google search for “quart beer ‘south africa’” showing references to 750ml bottles of beer as quarts

Below are an early and a recent instance of this sense, the first from renegade Afrikaner author Rian Malan in an issue of the long-defunct magazine Frontline (future research may well uncover earlier instances):

1991 Around noon the next day, a hungover skollie with a split lip came knocking on the back door, bearing a quart of beer and a zol as a peace offering. (Source)

2017 If you’re in the neighbourhood, pop in for a cold quart of beer, a game of pool and some ultra-spicy fishcakes. (Source)

(Further examples of the three words featured here can be found at the end of the post.)

Of course, in many of places in the world one speaks of a quart of beer, among other talk of quarts of many other kinds of substances.

As regards the specificity of the word in Mzantsi, in the first place, though “quart of (something)” is still used here, anachronistically and perhaps imprecisely, informally one does not need to use the phrase “quart of beer” for the specific local meaning. Often the word stands alone, no object required to indicate reference to a beverage: “quart” implies that the vessel has beer in it, or had beer in it, as the case may be:

2012 The evening ended with some young skyf and a few warm quarts down at the trusty Winston pub. (Source)

2016 On weekends he and his friends would drink quarts and blast Mandoza on repeat. (Source)

In the second place, the volume the local quart measures has changed over time. The online Dictionary of South African English gives a hint of the happenstance of a transfer of meaning from one size bottle to another where it advises that township slang is the origin of the SA English word “straight”: “a 750 ml (formerly one-quart) bottle of liquor.” At some point in South Africa in the late 20th century, likely following the adoption of the metric system, the available size for distribution and retail of what might be considered a large bottle of liquor changed, though the imperial term was retained for the new metric measure (which is somewhat smaller than a British imperial quart). It’s possible that it came to specify solely beer later.

That is, in SA, while quart may sometimes still refer to an imperial quantity or that size container, this use, as elsewhere, is usually qualified with a description—“a quart of X.” Sometimes such a use of quart may not in fact refer to the same amount as the imperial unit. When it is used alone without qualification, it can generally be taken to be referring to a 750ml bottle of beer/beer bottle.

Urban Dictionary has a 2006 entry for a Canadian sense of quart that is similar to the South African one:

quart_2006_urban_dictionary; 2006 entry for quart in Urban Dictionary; Canadian use; hard liquor

“Common name for a 750ML bottle of hard liquor in the East Coast of Canada. Can be defined as 32 ounces, 4 cups, 2 pints, or 1 quart.

“We went to the liquor store and bought a quart of vodka.” (Source)

However, South Africans don’t refer to a 750ml bottle of “hard liquor” as a quart—here the term is reversed for a beer bottle of that size. It is quite likely that quart has been in use in this sense in South Africa a fair while longer than the earliest quote above suggests.

As an aside, it interesting that a 1 litre “quart” of Carling Black Label has recently been introduced—or rather, reintroduced—its size better matches the original imperial measure. However, a retailer was nonplussed recently when I referred to one of these as “a big quart”—to her it was “a litre,” and not to be confused with the other. The general utility of the word litre in the metric system, as used in SA, suggests that this 1 litre bottle of Black Label is soon to develop its own name.


The colloquial word “ngudu” is similarly generic in reference: it too refers to any 750ml bottle of beer. Likely of isiXhosa or isiZulu origin, the word is also shortened to “ngud.” The earliest English quote found so far is from contemporary South African author Niq Mhlongo, while the more recent one shows the contracted form:

2008 And shame, behind the poor lady’s back, Chris whispered to us that in Zimbabwe he can only buy one ngudu (beer quart) with that billion. (Source)

2017 The road to fame doesn’t consist of a great voice or the ability to act anymore. It is being able to hold an ngud while still showing up on the dance floor. (Source)

It’s likely that ngudu was initially slowly adopted into SA English from one or both of these Nguni languages (more than 40% of South Africans have either the closely related isiZulu or isiXhosa as a home language). While the earliest instance I have found thus far is only from a decade ago, there are suggestions that it was used well before that and later entered SA English:

2009 Friends one has known for years, and who only drank ngudu, are suddenly whiskey, wine and cigar experts. (Source)

2016 Cigarette in the right hand competing with Ngudu ye Hansa (ngudus opened with the egg lifter—don’t ask me why). (Source)

It is either the case the writers of the above two quotes are using a contemporary term to refer back to a thing that at the time was called something else; or that this term, which they used then, has now been incorporated into local English. The 2009 quote may be harking back to any point in the first decade of the 21st century, while the second, which tells of a time when Brenda Fassie was alive (it is her “right hand” holding the beer and the cigarette), may be indicating the 1990s or even the 1980s. It is likely that ngudu, having been used with reference to a quart in isiXhosa and/or isiZulu slang or in isicamtho for many years, made its way into SA English in the first decade of the 21st century.

Contemporary evidence for popularisation of the word that may have played a role in its assimilation into contemporary colloquial South African discourses and thence into SA English can be found in its use in song titles. In 2016, South African artist Kwesta released the hit “Ngudu” featuring Cassper Nyovest; and it has been claimed that ngudu is “kwaito jargon,” having also been the title of a 2004 song by kwaito legend Zola.

The actual meaning of the word is not entirely clear though. I have been told that it simply means bottle, and have found only one other piece of evidence that this may be the case:

2017 He was clutching a green ngudu (bottle) and had related a poignant tale of his hate for Black Friday. (Source)

Neither of the isiXhosa and isiZulu dictionaries I consulted had entries for “ngudu,” exactly. However, Kropf’s century-old second edition isiXhosa-English dictionary has “um-Gudu” as effort and, for “in-Gudu,” the explicatory sentence, “Undingene ingudu, he is ever tracking me; he urges me on, makes me hurry,” in which “urges” and “hurry” may be taken as symptomatic of effort.

In addition, in a 1998 University of Johannesburg research essay on schooling in a Gauteng township, an informant makes reference to a different (sense of) ngudu:

Teachers tease and label us when we do not understand, especially when you are a bit older for the class. “Hey! Ngudu (that is, old one) stupid! My child who is your age is doing standard 8.” (Source)

Here, the sense of ngudu is something along the lines of one of excess, of greater size or height (or volume?) than is conventional. However, in this case, it is not clear that the original language used by the informant is a Nguni one and it may be that this ngudu has nothing to do with the apparent cognate in the isiXhosa dictionary, or for its use for a quart of beer. However, if we can for a minute allow that such a connection may be the case, we can speculate that ngudu, as it refers to the beer and the bottle, has something to do with the size of the latter (it is more than twice the volume of the 330ml or 340ml dumpie)—that it is conspicuously big enough to require an effort to drink it.

Continuing the aside I related with reference to quart, I have begun to wonder what isiXhosa or other vernacular word is currently being coined and popularised to refer to the new litre bottle of beer I mentioned. If ngudu has something to do with (the effort associated with drinking) a large bottle of beer, then will it be expansive enough to describe the 1 litre bottle, or might we start hearing of something like a “ta’mkhulu ngudu” (grandpa quart)?


While quart and ngudu can generically refer to any 750ml (or, for some brands, 660ml) beer bottle, Zamalek refers to one brand in particular, the Carling Black Label mentioned above. Usually, it refers specifically to a quart of Black Label, though it is also used to refer to any size bottle of that brand.

Here it should be noted that this is the top-selling beer brand in Mzantsi, especially among black South Africans, and that taverns and shebeens in the townships primarily sell beers as quarts.

2000 Labels ripped from his trademark and now-iconic zamalek beer bottles haphazardly adorned his forehead and white button-up shirt. (Source)

2017 The bottle of Zamalek is her first beer of the day. It won’t be the last. … Soon, Mbete will leave her friend’s shack to meet one of her boyfriends in a shebeen. He’ll buy her some of her favourite Zamalek beers and give her a place to sleep for the night, but she knows that, depending on his needs, she may not get much sleep. (Source)

How did a quart of Black Label come to be called a Zamalek? The story goes as follows:

In 1993, the Egyptian football club Zamalek SC came to South Africa to play a second round African Champions Cup (now Champions League) match against what is arguably South Africa’s best-known soccer team, Kaiser Chiefs. In the event, amaKhosi lost 1-2 to Zamalek and were knocked out of the competition.

This fact is one of the alleged origins of the use of Zamalek to describe a Black Label quart. Here it helps to know that while most of the best-known brands of beer in SA contain 5% alcohol or less, Black Label comes in at 5.5%, which no doubt contributes to its popularity. Here, the explanation is that Zamalek were as strong as a Black Label or, in any case, too strong for Chiefs.

Another account I have heard is that colours of Zamalek’s strip are the same as those of the beer, red and black:

2009 Anyone know how Black Label came to be known as Zamalek? Serious question. / Its label has the same colours as the Egyptian football team of the same name. (Source)

However, Zamalek’s Wikipedia page informs us that the club’s colours have always been red and white, and blue for away matches, so it is not easy to see how this might be true, unless Zamalek were playing in some poorly documented variation of their strip on the night.

In any case, in 1997, a track titled “Phuza Zamalek” (Drink Zamalek in isiZulu and isiXhosa) appeared on an album called “The Best of Zamalek, Vol. 6.” This may be the same dance song “commemorating a clash between Egyptian soccer side Zamalek and Soweto giants Kaiser Chiefs” that is said to be the source from which Zamalek as a name for the beer derives. It is probably the case that the track, among other things, served to popularise a term that had already been in use for a while. It began to appear in South African English as few years later.

Concluding then: in South Africa, there are at least three words to describe a 750ml bottle of beer. Quart is the most established in South African English, probably dates back to at least the 1980s, and is in general public use. Zamalek, a more specific term, and ngudu, another generic one, are likely to have made their way into SAE from isiXhosa and/or isiZulu (kwaito?) slang or isicamtho around the turn of the century and in the course of the first decade of the 21st century, respectively. Their use is becoming increasingly evenly distributed across that proportion of the South African population who speak English.

Further examples of the use of quart

1998 He produced a brown quart bottle of Castle Lager and opened it, handing out glasses from a shelf neatly lined with newspaper. (Source)

1999 Before driving to Gys Farm as instructed by Pretorius, I drove to Eldorado Park shebeen where I bought myself five or six quarts of beer. (Source)

2002 Knowing how well its quart beer bottle does (making up 75% of SAB’s total beer volumes), SAB decided to introduce a similar size bottle (660ml as opposed to the 750ml (quart) bottle). (Source, p. 22)

2007 Like quarts of Zamalek emptied over the naked brown body of a Zulu nubile, the stories are flowing from Ben Pretorius, founder of the Rainbow Restaurant. (Source)

2010 Billy’s transforms into a shebeen for the evening with a special shebeen menu for those with a healthy appetite as well as the all important Zamalek Quart and of course Black Label Draught. (Source)

2011 First off, we’re going to need a bottleneck, take a quart, a large 750ml beer bottle, drain contents, hold the neck and smash it on a brick. Carefully. (Source)

2016 I showed them on the app exactly where the suspects were in a nearby squatter camp. We started following the phone, and I ran up to a hut where two guys were sitting enjoying some quarts of beer. (Source)

Further examples of the use of ngudu

2015 Ngudus are opened with teeth, someone takes out a pair of scissors and starts chopping trees and rolls a thin one, soon the room is misted up and everyone is faded. (Source)

2016 Here’s our top eight recommendations, make sure your cooler is stocked with Ngudu, and get your Njabulo weekend-special vibes on… (Source)

2016 (Facebook)

ngudu_2016_fb_edit; screenshot of 2016 Facebook post showing use quarts and ngud

2017 Braai platters, Quarts Beer (Ngudu) specials, cocktails, bubbly, DJ music and more. Entrance before 7pm is FREE. (Source)

Further examples of the use of Zamalek

2007 You are only worried about you budget for your zamalek … / The amount of Zamaleks I consume on average costs a fortune. (Source)

2008 At the Great British Beer Festival a brochure is available with tasting notes every bit as verbose as the ones you would hear from the most obsessive wine connoisseur. Expect lines such as “an aroma replete with fruit compote, dark cocoa, chewy malts and mulling spices.” This is not something you are likely to hear someone down at the local shebeen say about their Zamalek. (Source)

2009 He has the ability of doing things on-air that’s never been done before—from spending a night in a ghostly heritage building to toy-toying in the studio for meat and Zamalek. (Source)

2010 Saldanah Mussels Zamalek: Fresh Saldanha Bay black mussels steamed in South Africa’s favourite beer finished with herbs and garlic butter. Enjoy the tasty juices with crisp potato wedges. (Source)

2013 There was grumbling from some that the test sample they were meant to analyse was unrepresentative. Where were the Zamaleks and the Peronis? Why not a Castle Lager? (Source)


The dictionaries consulted are the online versions of Oxford Dictionaries (English), Cambridge English Dictionary, Collins English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, and


Kropf, A. (1915) A Kafir-English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Alice: Lovedale Mission Press, pp. 133 & 134

Malaka, M. M. (1998) “‘At Risk’ Youths’ Perceptions of Schooling: A Case Study in Kathorus” Unpublished MEd Research Essay. University of Johannesburg, p. 43

© GQOM 2018


4 thoughts on “Love in a seven-50 mil bottle: quart, ngudu, and Zamalek—three words for a big beer in SA English

  1. Hi gqom!
    I often hear smaller bottles of hard liquor referred at social events to as “half-jack”, “quarter-jack” and “nip”. As a teetotaller, I’ve no idea what the provenance is…as a sub-editor, I’d love to find out


    1. Hi sisgwen
      Thanks for your comment – and for all the writing on jazz. “Half-jack” is well-established in SA English, having been around since at least the 1950s. It refers to a 375ml bottle of liquor (see more here:!/search/hws/half-jack/sY/pN). The other two I don’t know, and haven’t researched, though I assume that “quarter-jack” must be half of a half-jack, or something similar, if that’s possible. A quick Google search doesn’t reveal anything of particular interest either internationally or locally about these two words in this domain, though defines “nip” somewhat vaguely as “A small quantity or sip of spirits.” That means that it’s probably general (or UK) English, not the local variety. The only dictionary definition I can find for “quarter-jack” refers to a clock that strikes each quarter hour. I’ll take a closer look at this the next time I do an similarly themed post. Cheers


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