Mixed with over a dozen African languages for over two centuries, spiced by imports from British, Dutch and Portuguese colonies, South African English has its own rich, varied and sometimes weird flavour.
English has been spoken in South Africa for over 200 years, at least since the British military seized the Cape of Good Hope settlement from the Dutch in 1795 to keep the Cape out of the hands of revolutionary France, then a Dutch ally.
Since then South Africa’s everyday English has gradually absorbed many words from African languages.
These influences include Afrikaans, a South African language that grew out of a variety of Dutch spoken in the 1500s. South African English also borrows from African languages such as isiZulu, isiXhosa, Sesotho and Setswana, and the indigenous languages of the Khoesan and Nama people.
Here and there are words imported from British, Portuguese and Dutch colonies, such as India, Mozambique, Malaysia and Indonesia. Later immigrants – Greeks, Lebanese, Eastern European Jews and others – added new words to local English.
According to the 2011 census, English is the home language of 9.6% of South Africans – a third of them not white.
English is the language of public life: government, business and the media. It’s estimated that half of South Africa’s people have a speaking knowledge of the language.
This glossary explains some of the words often used when English is spoken in South Africa.
A: aardvark to aweh
aardvark (noun) – African burrowing mammal Orycteropus afer, with a tubular snout and long tongue which it uses to feed on ants and termites. From the Afrikaans aard (earth) and vark (pig).
aardwolf (noun) – African burrowing mammal Proteles cristatus , a member of the hyena family, which feeds mainly on termites. From the Afrikaans aard (earth) and wolf (wolf)
abakwetha (noun, plural) – Young Xhosa men being initiated into manhood at initiation school. From the isiXhosa umkwetha , plural abakwetha .
abba (verb) – Carry a child secured to one’s back with a blanket. From the Khoisan.
accrual (noun) – South African legal principle whereby a person going through a divorce may, if the value of their property has increased less than that of their spouse, claim at half of the difference in the accumulated value of their joint property.
Africanis (noun) – Indigenous breed of African dog, thought to be distantly related to other landrace dogs such as the dingo. Known for its intelligence, disease-resistance and excellent adaptation to harsh African conditions, the breed evolved in association with humans, instead of being artificially bred in the manner of European breeds. The name was coined by University of KwaZulu-Natal Africanis expert Johan Gallant, from “Africa” and “canis”, the Latin for dog.
Afrikaans (noun) – South African language, developed out of the Dutch spoken in the country since the first Dutch East India Company settlement in the Cape, established in 1652. Afrikaans was considered a dialect of Dutch – known as “Cape Dutch” – until recognised as a language in the late 19th century. From the Dutch for “African”.
Afrikaner (noun) Indigenous South African Bos indicus breed of long-horned beef cattle.
ag (exclamation) – Expression of frustration, outrage, impatience or resignation: “Ag no! I spilled coffee on my keyboard again!”
Amakhosi (noun) – Affectionate term for the Kaizer Chiefs football club. From the isiZulu for “chiefs”.
amakhosi (noun, plural) – Traditional leaders; chiefs (plural). From the isiZulu.
Anglo-Boer War (noun) – War between the British and the Boers, the forebears of today’s Afrikaners, from 1899 to 1902. While strictly the Second Boer War – the first being fought from 1880 to 1881 – it was by far the more significant conflict. Today the Anglo-Boer War is better known as the South African War. This recognises that while the declared war was ostensibly between the British and Boers, other people – Africans and Indians – also took part, and were victims of the conflict.
Anglo-Zulu War (noun) – War between the British and the Zulus, fought in 1879. Most famous for the battle of Isandlwana, in which the British colonial army suffered their greatest single military defeat ever.
apartheid (noun) – Literally “apartness” in Afrikaans, apartheid was the policy of racial segregation implemented by the National Party from 1948 to 1994, resulting in the oppression and labour exploitation of South Africa’s black majority, and their systematic exclusion from the country’s mainstream economic, educational and social life.
aweh (exclamation) – Enthusiastic yes, absolutely.
B: babbelas to bushveld
babbelas (noun) – Hangover. From the isiZulu ibhabhalazi (hangover).
bagel (noun) – Overly groomed materialistic young man, and the male version of a kugel. From the Yiddish word for the pastry.
bakgat (exclamation and adjective) – Fantastic, cool, awesome. From the Afrikaans.
bakkie (noun) – Utility truck, pick-up truck. Diminutive of the Afrikaans bak (container).
Basotho (noun, plural) – The South Sotho people, principally those living in Lesotho. The singular is Mosotho.
bergie (noun, derogatory) – Originally referred to homeless people who sheltered in the forests of Cape Town’s Table Mountain. It’s now a derogatory word for homeless people, generally. From the Afrikaans berg (mountain).
big five, the (noun) – Africa’s famous five wildlife species: lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino.
biltong (noun) – Dried and salted meat, similar to beef jerky, although it can be made from ostrich, kudu or any other red meat. The privations of early white colonialism made drying and salting, often with vinegar and spices, an essential means of preserving meat. From the Afrikaans, originally from the Dutch bil (rump) and tong (strip or tongue).
bioscope (noun, dated) – Cinema or movie theatre, originally a word widespread in Commonwealth countries such as South Africa and Australia that, although generally out of use, has survived longer in South Africa because of the influence of the Afrikaans bioskoop.
biscuit (noun) – Both a cookie and a term of affection for a person.
bittereinder (noun) – Bitter-ender or diehard; Boer who refused to surrender and continued to resist after defeat at the end of the Anglo-Boer War.
blesbok (noun) – South African antelope Damaliscus dorcas phillipsi , with a reddish-brown coat and prominent white blaze on the face. From the Afrikaans bles (blaze) and bok (buck).
bliksem (verb and noun) – To beat up, hit or punch – or a mischievous person. From the Afrikaans for “lightning”. See donder.
blooming (adjective and adverb) – Very, extremely, used with irritation: “My laptop’s a blooming mess after I spilled coffee on the keyboard.”
bobotie (noun) – Dish of Malay origin, made with minced meat and spices, and topped with an egg sauce. The recipe arrived in South Africa during the country’s Dutch occupation, via slaves from Dutch East India Company colonies in Jakarta, in today’s Indonesia. From the Indonesian bobotok.
boekenhout (noun) – The Cape beech tree Rapanea melanophloeos , or its wood. From the Afrikaans beuk (beech) and hout (wood).
boep (noun) – Pot belly, paunch; generally associated with the conformation of older – or beer-drinking – men. Shortened form of the Afrikaans boepens (paunch), from the Dutch boeg (bow of ship) and pens (stomach).
boer (noun) – Farmer. From the Afrikaans and Dutch.
Boer (noun) – Member of a nation descended from the Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in 1652, with some intermingling with French Huguenots, German immigrants, indigenous people and others. The Boers trekked by oxwagon from the Cape into the South African hinterland, formed short-lived republics, and went on to fight a major war with the British empire, the Anglo-Boer War. Today’s white Afrikaners are the descendants of the Boers. From the Afrikaans and Dutch for “farmer”.
Boer Goat (noun) – Hardy and productive South African goat breed, a cross between indigenous and European goat types. From the Afrikaans boer (farmer).
Boerboel, Boerbul, Boerbul (noun) – Large and powerful South African breed of dog, crossbred from the Mastiff and indigenous breeds such as the Africanis and Ridgeback, originally for farm work. From the Afrikaans boer (farmer) and Dutch bul (Mastiff).
boerewors (noun) – Savoury sausage developed by the Boers, the forebears of today’s Afrikaners, some 200 years ago, and still popular at braais across South Africa. Also known as wors. From the Afrikaans boer (farmer) and wors (sausage, Dutch worst).
Boerperd (noun) – South African horse breed, the product of cross-breeding indigenous horses with breeds introduced by early European settlers. From the Afrikaans boer (farmer) and perd (horse).
boet (noun) – Term of affection, from the Afrikaans for “brother”.
bok (noun) – Buck. From the Afrikaans.
bokkom, bokkem (noun) – South African salted fish hung on an outdoor rack for wind-drying – a kind of fish biltong. From the Dutch bokking , bokkem (smoked herring).
boma (noun) – In South Africa, an open thatched structure used for dinners, entertainment and parties. Originally a form of log fortification used to keep livestock in or enemies out. The word is used across Africa and is of uncertain origin.
bonsella (noun) – Bonus, surprise gift, something extra, or bribe. From the isiZulu bansela (offer a gift in gratitude).
Bonsmara (noun) – South African breed of beef cattle, cross-bred for both hardiness in local conditions and high production from Shorthorn, Hereford and indigenous Afrikaner cattle. The name comes from Professor Jan Bonsma, who developed the breed, and the Mara research station where it was first produced.
bontebok (noun) – African antelope (Damaliscus dorcas dorcas) with a white-and-brown hide, related to the blesbok. From the Afrikaans bont (pied) and bok (buck).
boom (noun) – Marijuana, dagga. From the Afrikaans for “tree”.
bosberaad (noun) – Strategy meeting or conference, usually held in a remote bushveld location such as a game farm. From the Afrikaans bos (bush) and raad (council).
brah (noun) – Brother, friend, mate. Shortening of “brother”.
bredie (noun) – Originally mutton stew, introduced by Malay slaves brought to South Africa by the Dutch East India Company. It now refers to any kind of stew. Tomato bredie – stewed tomato and onions served with pap at a braai – is a favourite. From the Afrikaans, originally perhaps from the Portuguese bredo .
bru (noun) – Term of affection, shortened from Afrikaans and Dutch broer (pronounced “broo-er”), meaning “brother”.
Buccaneers (noun) – Affectionate term for the Orlando Pirates football team. From the historical word for “pirate”.
bunny chow (noun) – Curry served in a hollowed-out half-loaf of bread, with the hollowed-out piece of bread placed on top. The dish originated in Durban’s immigrant Indian community, who arrived in what was then the colony of Natal from 1860 onwards.
It is believed that bunny chow was a convenient food on the go for Indian labourers working especially in the colony’s sugarcane plantations. Today it is available across South Africa, in both cheap cafes and exclusive Indian restaurants.
“Chow” is South African informal for food, perhaps from “chow-chow”, a relish that gets its name from the French chou (cabbage). The origin of “bunny” in bunny chow is, according to one theory, that the meal was first sold at a Durban restaurant run by Banias, an Indian caste. Also see “kota“.
Bushman (noun) – Member of a population group indigenous to southern Africa, with a far deeper history than any other settlers in the region. Bushmen are also known as San. There is some debate on the political correctness of the use of “San” versus “Bushman”.
bushveld (noun) – South Africa’s tropical savannah ecoregion, a terrain of thick scrubby trees and bush in dense thickets, with grassy ground cover between. From the Afrikaans bos (bush) and veld (field).
C: café to cousin
café, caffee (noun) – A small local neighbourhood store stocking basic groceries.
Casspir (noun) – South African armoured vehicle, infamously deployed in townships during the anti-apartheid uprisings of the 1980s. Originally designed as a landmine-proof vehicle for use in South Africa’s border war with Angola, in the same era. Casspir is an anagram of SAP and CSIR: the customer was the South African Police (SAP), and the developer the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
chakalaka (noun) – a spicy vegetable dish traditionally served as a sauce or relish with bread, pap, samp, stews or curries
check you (exclamation) – Goodbye, see you later.
china (noun) – Friend, mate. From the Cockney rhyming slang “china plate” = “mate”.
chiskop, chizkop, cheesekop, kaaskop (noun) – Bald person, particularly one with a shaved head. Kop is Afrikaans for head; the origin of the chis part is unclear. Otherwise known as kaaskop; kaas is Afrikaans for “cheese”.
chommie (noun) – Friend, mate. From the UK English chum, with the Afrikaans diminutive “ie”.
chop (noun) – Fool, idiot; often used affectionately.
Clever Boys, the (noun) – Affectionate term for the University of the Witwatersrand football club, Wits FC.
cooldrink, colddrink (noun) – Sweet fizzy drink such as Coca-Cola.
cousin, cuzzy (noun) – Friend, mate.
D: dagga to dwaal
dagha (noun) – Building mortar or plaster traditionally made with mud mixed with cow-dung and blood. Today it also refers to regular cement mortar and plaster. From the isiZulu and isiXhosa udaka (clay, mud).
dassie (noun) – Rock hyrax or Cape hyrax (Procavia capensis), a small herbivore that lives in mountainous habitats. From the Afrikaans das (badger).
deurmekaar (adjective) – Confused, disorganised or stupid, from the Afrikaans word of the same meaning.
dinges (noun) – Thing, thingamabob, whatzit, whatchamacallit, whatsizname or person with a forgotten name: “When is dinges coming around?” From the Afrikaans and Dutch ding (thing).
doek (noun) – Woman’s head scarf. From the Afrikaans.
dolos (noun) – Blocks of concrete in an H-shape, with one arm rotated through 90º. The dolos is a South African invention, with the interlocking blocks piled together to protect harbour seawalls and preserve beaches from erosion. The word comes from the Afrikaans for the knuckle bones in a sheep’s leg. The plural is dolosse.
dompas (noun) – Passbook black South Africans were required by law to carry at all times in “white” urban areas during the apartheid era. From the Afrikaans dom (dumb, stupid) and pas (pass).
donga (noun) – Ditch or deep fissure caused by severe soil erosion. From the isiZulu and isiXhosa udonga .
donner (verb) – Hit, beat up. From the Afrikaans donder (thunder). See bliksem.
dop (noun and verb) – Small tot of alcoholic drink. Also failure: “I dopped the test.” From the Afrikaans.
droë wors (noun) – Dried boerewors, similar to biltong. From the Afrikaans droe (dry) and wors (sausage).
Durbs (noun) – The city of Durban.
dwaal (noun and verb) – Lack of concentration or focus: “Sorry, I was in a bit of a dwaal. Could you repeat that?” Or, as a verb: “I was dwaaling down the street, going nowhere.” From the Afrikaans for err, wander or roam.
E: Egoli to ekasi
Egoli (noun) – Johannesburg, and the title of a local soap opera set in the city. From the isiXhosa and isiZulu for “place of gold”; Johannesburg is historically South Africa’s primary gold-producing area, and the country’s richest city.
eina (exclamation and adjective) – Ouch! or Ow! Can also mean “sore”. Example (exclamation): “Eina! I just cut my finger.” Example (adjective): “That cut was eina.” From the Khoikhoi /é + //náu.
eish (exclamation) – Expression of surprise, wonder, frustration or outrage. Example: “Eish! That cut was eina!” From the isiXhosa and isiZulu.
ekasi See kasie
F: Fanagolo to fynbos
Fanagolo, Fanakolo (noun) – Pidgin language that grew up mainly on South Africa’s gold mines to allow communication between white supervisors and African labourers during the colonial and apartheid era. It combines elements of the Nguni languages, English, and Afrikaans. From the Nguni fana ka lo , from fana (be like) and the possessive suffix -ka + lo (this).
fixed up (exclamation) – That’s good, yes, sorted. Example: “Let’s meet at the restaurant.” The reply: “Fixed up.”
flog (verb) – Sell. “I’ve had enough of this laptop. I think it’s time I flogged it.”
for sure, sure, sure-sure (exclamation) – Yes; general affirmative.
frikkadel (noun) – Meatball or rissole. From the Afrikaans, originally from the French fricandeau (fried sliced meat served with sauce).
fundi (noun) – Expert. From the Nguni umfundisi (teacher, preacher).
fynbos (noun) – “Fine bush” in Afrikaans, fynbos is a vegetation type unique to the Cape Floral Region – a Unesco World Heritage Site – made up of some 6 000 plant species, including many types of protea.
G: gatvol to Griqualand
gatvol (adjective) – Fed up. From the Afrikaans.
gemsbok (noun) – Large African antelope (Oryx gazella) with long, straight horns. From the Afrikaans gems (chamois, a European goat-antelope) and bok (buck).
gogga, goggo (noun) – Insect, bug. From the Khoikhoi xo-xon.
gramadoelas (noun) – Wild or remote country. From the Afrikaans, perhaps originally from the isiXhosa and isiZulu induli (hillock).
grand apartheid (noun) – The most systematic and rigid implementation of apartheid, such as the creation of the “homelands” under the policy of “separate development”, during the 1960s and 1970s.
graze (verb) – Eat.
Griqua (noun, plural and singular) – South African population group, or a member of that group, descended from a mix of early (from 1652) European blood with that of the indigenous Khokhoi, San and Tswana. They generally speak Afrikaans, and have their own church, the Protestant Griqua Church. “Griqua” is a Nama word.
Griqualand (noun) – Two South African regions historically occupied by the Griqua. Griqualand East, on the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal frontier, was settled by Adam Kok III and over 2 000 Griquas after a trek across the Drakensberg mountains in 1861. Today the region is centred around the town of Kokstad (Kok’s city). Griqualand West is the area around Kimberley, the capital of the Northern Cape. “Griqua” is a Nama word.
H: hamerkop to howzit
hamerkop (noun) – South African marsh bird (Scopus umbretta), related to the storks, with a prominent crest on the head. From the Afrikaans hamer (hammer) and kop (head).
Hanepoot (noun) – Sweet wine made from the muscat blanc d’Alexandrie grape cultivar, and an alternate name for this cultivar.
hang of a (adjective) – Very or big, as in: “It’s hang of a difficult” or “I had a hang of a problem”.
hey (exclamation) – Expression that can be used as a standalone question meaning “pardon?” or “what?” – “Hey? What did you say?” Or it can be used to prompt affirmation or agreement, as in “It was a great film, hey?”
homelands (noun) – The spurious “independent” states in which black South Africans were forced to take citizenship under the policy of apartheid. Also known as bantustans.
howzit (exclamation) – Common South African greeting that translates roughly as “How are you?”, “How are things?” or just “Hello”. From “How is it?”
I: imbizo to isiZulu
imbizo (noun) – Gathering called by a traditional leader, or any meeting or workshop. From the isiZulu biza (call, summon)
imbongi (noun) – Traditional praise singer. From the isiXhosa and isiZulu.
indaba (noun) – Conference or expo. From the isiZulu and isiXhosa for “matter” or “discussion”.
inyanga (noun) – Traditional herbalist and healer. From the Nguni.
is it (exclamation) – Is that so?
Iscamtho, isiCamtho (noun) – Tsotsitaal (gangster language), a widely-spoken township patois made up of an amalgam of words from isiZulu, isiXhosa, Afrikaans and some English. From the isiZulu camto (speak).
isiNdebele (noun) – Nguni language of the Ndebele people.
isiXhosa (noun) – Nguni language of the Xhosa people.
isiZulu (noun) – Nguni language of the Zulu people.
J: ja to just now
ja (exclamation) – Yes. From the Afrikaans.
jawelnofine (exclamation) – Literally, “yes (ja in Afrikaans), well, no, fine”, all in a single word. An expression of resignation or puzzlement similar to “How about that?”
jislaaik (exclamation) – Expression of outrage, surprise or consternation: “Jislaaik, I spilled coffee on my laptop!” From the Afrikaans.
Joburg (noun) – Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city. Once informal, it is now used on the City of Johannesburg logo.
Joeys (noun) – Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city
jol (noun, verb and adjective) – Celebration, fun, party (noun); celebrate, have fun, party, dance and drink (verb). A person who does these things is a joller. From the Afrikaans for “dance” or “party”; perhaps related to “jolly”. Occasionally spelled “jawl” or “jorl”.
Jozi (noun) – Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city
just now (adverb) – Soonish, not immediately.
K: kaaskop to kwela-kwela
kaaskop, chiskop, chizkop, cheesekop (noun) – Bald person, or person with a shaved head. “Kop” is Afrikaans for head. “Kaas” is the Afrikaans for cheese. Why “cheese head” means bald person is not clear.
kasie (noun) – Shortened form of the Afrikaans lokasie (location), the older word for township – the low-income dormitory suburbs outside cities and towns to which black South Africans were confined during the apartheid era.
khaya (noun) – Home. From the Nguni group of languages.
Khoekhoe (noun) – Standardised spelling of “Khoikhoi” in the Khoekhoe Nama languages.
Khoikhoi [also Quena] (noun) – Indigenous Khoisan people living in southwestern South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, including the Nama, and their languages. From the Nama for “people people” or “real people”.
Khoisan (noun) – Collective term for the Khoi and San people of South Africa.
kiepersol (noun) – Cabbage tree. From the Afrikaans, originally perhaps from the obsolete Indian English kittisol (parasol). The tree has some resemblance to an umbrella.
kif (adjective) – Cool, good, enjoyable. From the Arabic kayf (enjoyment, wellbeing).
kikoi (noun) – Attractively patterned cotton cloth with fringed ends used as an informal wraparound skirt, or towel, or picnic blanket. From the Kiswahili.
Kiswahili (noun) – Swahili, the language.
knobkierie (noun) – Fighting stick with a knob on the business end. From the Afrikaans knop (knob) and the Khoisan kirri or keeri , (stick).
koeksuster (noun) – Also spelled koeksister . Traditional Malay and Afrikaner sweet, made from twisted yeast dough, deep fried and dipped in syrup. The right-wing enclave of Orania in the Northern Cape even has its own statue to the koeksister. The word comes from the Dutch koek (cake) and sissen (to sizzle).
koki (noun) – Coloured marker or felt-tip pen. From a local brand name.
kombi (noun) – Minibus taxi. From the Volkswagen proprietary name Kombi, from the German Kombiwagen. Volkswagen minibuses were the first used in the initial stages of South Africa’s minibus taxi transport revolution of the early 1980s, although today other vehicle makes are used.
konfyt (noun) – Sweet fruit preserve. From the Afrikaans, originally from the Dutch konfit.
koppie (noun) – Small hill. From the Afrikaans.
korhaan (noun) – Group of species of long-legged African bird (genus Eupodotis) found in open country. From the Dutch korhaan (black male grouse), from korren (too coo) and haan (cock).
kota (noun) – A quarter loaf of bread hollowed out and filled with combinations of atchar, polony (Bologna), Russian sausages, slap chips, cheese, eggs, chilli sauce and more. A street food variant of the more suburban bunny chow. From the English “quarter”.
kraal (noun) – Enclosure for livestock, or a rural village of huts surrounded by a stockade. The word may come from the Portuguese curral (corral), or from the Dutch kraal (bead), as in the beads of a necklace – kraals are generally round in shape.
krans (noun) – Cliff; overhanging wall of rock. From the Afrikaans.
kudu (noun) – Large African antelope (Tragelaphus strepsiceros and Tragelaphus imberbis). From the Afrikaans koedoe , originally from the isiXhosa i-qudu .
kugel (noun) – Overly groomed materialistic young woman, from the Yiddish word for a plain pudding garnished as a delicacy. A bagel is the male variety.
kwaito (noun) – Music of South Africa’s urban black youth, which first emerged in the 1990s. Kwaito is a mixture of South African disco, hip hop, R&B, ragga, and a heavy dose of house music beats. From the Tsotsitaal or township informal amakwaitosi (gangster).
kwela (noun) – Popular form of township music from the 1950s, based on the pennywhistle – a cheap and simple instrument used by street performers. The term kwela comes from the isiZulu for “get up” or “climb on”, also township slang for police vans, the kwela-kwela. It is said that the young men who played the pennywhistle on street corners also acted as lookouts to warn those drinking in illegal shebeens of the arrival of the cops.
kwela-kwela (noun) – Police van, or minibus taxi. From the isiXhosa and isiZulu for “climb on”.
L: laatlammetjie to loerie
laatlammetjie (noun) – Youngest child of a family, born to older parents and much younger than their siblings. The word means “late lamb” in Afrikaans.
laduma! (exclamation) – A yell to celebrate a goal scored in a football match, from the isiZulu for “it thunders”.
lapa (noun) – Open-sided enclosure, usually roofed with thatch, used as an outdoor entertainment area. From the Sesotho for “homestead” or “courtyard”.
lappie (noun) – Cleaning cloth. From the Afrikaans, originally from the Dutch for “rag” or “cloth”.
lekgotla (noun) – Planning or strategy session. From the Setswana for “meeting” or “meeting place”.
load-shedding (noun) – Planned electricity blackout in a specific area, to relieve pressure on South Africa’s national power grid.
location (noun) – South African township; lokasie or kasie in Afrikaans.
loerie (noun) – Number of species of large fruit-eating African bird (genus Tauraco and others). From the Afrikaans, originally from the Malay luri (parrot).
loskop (noun) – A ditz, a scatterbrain. Afrikaans for “loose head” or “lost head”.
M: maas to Mzansi
maas, amasi (noun) – Thick curdled milk, similar to yoghurt. Maas is both made at home and can be bought ready-made. From the isiXhosa and isiZulu.
Madiba (noun) – Affectionate name for Nelson Mandela, and the name of his clan.
madumbe (noun) – South African potato-like tuber (Colocasia esculenta and Colocasia antiquorum), cultivated mostly in KwaZulu-Natal, greyish in colour and rather tasty. From the isiZulu amadumbe .
makarapa (noun) – A plastic miner’s helmet cut, moulded and painted to make headgear worn by fans at football matches. From isiXhosa.
mal (adjective) – Mad. from the Afrikaans.
mama (noun) – An affectionate or polite name for older women.
mamba (noun) – Species of large and venomous African snake – the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis), the green mamba (Dendroaspis angustipecs), and other species. From the isiZulu imamba .
mampara (noun) – An idiot; a stupid or silly person. The Sunday Times newspaper shames wrongdoers in public life with its Mampara of the Week award. From Fanagolo.
mampoer (noun) – Strong brandy made from peaches or other fruit, similar to moonshine. An Afrikaans word with uncertain etymology; perhaps from the Pedi chief Mampuru. See witblitz.
marula, maroela (noun) – South African woodland tree (Sclerocarya birrea caffra) with sweet yellow fruit. The fruit is now used in a locally produced commercial liqueur marketed as Amarula. From the Sesotho morula .
Matabele (noun) – Nguni-language-speaking people of Zimbabwe, and the majority population group in that country.
mbube (noun) – Style of South African township music developed in the 1940s by Zulu migrants to urban areas. The first example of the style was the song Mbube by Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds. The song was copied as Wimoweh by Pete Seeger in 1952, and as The Lion Sleeps Tonight by The Tokens in 1961. It also featured in Disney’s hit animated film The Lion King. Solomon Linda died in 1962 with less than R100 in his bank account. His family couldn’t afford a headstone for his grave. The song is said to have generated some US$15-million in royalties. Linda’s descendants were only compensated for seven decades of copyright infringement in 2007, for an undisclosed amount. “Mbube” is isiZulu for “lion”.
MK (noun) – Abbreviation of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the African National Congress army in exile.
moegoe (noun) – Fool, buffoon, idiot or simpleton. From Afrikaans and Tsotsitaal.
moer (verb) – Hit, punch, beat up. From the Afrikaans “murder”.
mokoro (noun) – Dugout canoe used in Botswana.
mopani, mopane (noun) – South African tree of the northern bushveld, Colophospermun mopane , and the bioregion associated with the tree.
Mosotho (noun) – A South Sotho person. The plural is Basotho.
mossie (noun) – Cape sparrow or house sparrow, but sometimes used to refer to any small undistinguished wild bird. From the Afrikaans, originally from the Dutch mosje , a diminutive of mos (sparrow).
mozzie (noun) – mosquito.
muti, muthi (noun) – Medicine, typically indigenous African medicine, from the isiZulu umuthi .
Mzansi (noun) – South Africa. From the isiXhosa for “south”.
N: naartjie to now-now
naartjie (noun) – Tangerine (Citrus reticulata). From the Afrikaans, originally from the Tamil nārattai .
Nama, Namaqua, Namaqualander (noun) – Khoikhoi people of South Africa’s Northern Cape province and southwest Namibia, one of those people, and the language they speak. From the Nama word for themselves.
Namaqualand (noun) – Arid region of South Africa’s Northern Cape province and southwestern Namibia, inhabited largely by the Nama people and known for its annual explosion of desert flowers.
Namaqualand daisy (noun) – South African daisy Dimorphotheca sinuate, with bright yellow, orange or white flowers, which once a year carpets the arid northwest region of Namaqualand with colour.
Ndebele (noun) – Two groups on Nguni people, one found in southwest Zimbabwe and the other in northeast South Africa, or a member of one of these groups. Their language is isiNdebele.
Nguni (noun) – Breed of indigenous South African long-horned cattle (Bos indicus) long associated with the Zulu and Xhosa people, with beautiful and varied black, brown, white and tan patterns on their hide.
Nguni (noun) – Wide and diverse group of people who speak Bantu languages, or one of these languages, living mainly in southern Africa. Nguni peoples include the Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swazi (also known as Swati), with the corresponding languages of isiZulu, isiXhosa, isiNdebele and siSwati.
Nkone (noun) – Breed of indigenous long-horned Zebu (Bos indicus) beef cattle, with a piebald hide.
now-now (adverb) – Shortly, in a bit: “I’ll be there now-now.”
O: oke to oribi
oke, ou (noun) – Man, similar to guy or bloke. The word ou can be used interchangeably. From the Afrikaans ou (old).
ola (exclamation) – Hello, greetings, how are you.
oribi (noun) – Small African antelope (Ourebia ourebi) with a reddish tan back and white underparts.
P: pap to protea
pap (noun) – Porridge made from mealie meal (maize meal) cooked with water and salt to a fairly stiff consistency – “stywepap” being the stiffest. The staple food of South Africa. “Pap” can also mean weak or tired. From the Afrikaans.
papsak (noun) – Cheap box wine sold in its foil container, without the box. From the Afrikaans pap (soft) and sak (sack).
pasop (verb) – Beware or watch out. From the Afrikaans.
Perlé (noun) – Semi-sweet, slightly sparkly and somewhat cheap South African wine. From the German Perlwein (slightly sparkling wine).
perlemoen (noun) – Abalone (Haliotis midae), a large shellfish much like a giant mussel. A delicacy, perlemoen fetch a high price internationally, putting the species under constant threat from poachers.From the Middle Dutch perlemoeder, mother of pearl: perl means pearl, moeder means mother.
phuza (noun) – Alcohol, liquor. “Phuza face” describes a person with a face puffy and bloated from drinking. From the isiXhosa and isiZulu, “drink”.
piet-my-vrou (noun) – The red-chested cuckoo (Cuculus solitarus). The name, mimicking the bird’s call, means “Peter my wife” in Afrikaans.
potjie (noun) – Rounded and three-legged cast-iron pot, with a lid, used for cooking stew over an open fire. From the Afrikaans diminutive for “pot”.
potjiekos (noun) – Food – mostly long-stewed meat and vegetables – cooked in a potjie. A potjie , in Afrikaans, is a three-legged cast-iron pot used for cooking over an open fire; kos is Afrikaans for “food”.
protea (noun) – Group of South African fynbos plant species (genus Protea) with distinctive cone-like flower heads. The king protea is the country’s national flower.
Q: quagga to quiver tree
quagga (noun) – Extinct South African zebra (Equus quagga), with stripes only on its forequarters and a reddish-brown hide behind its stripes, native to South Africa’s Cape provinces. The species was indiscriminately hunted in the colonial era, until its last living specimen died at the Amsterdam zoo on 12 August 1883.
Quena (noun) – Khoikhoi
quiver tree (noun) – Tree-like aloe plant (Aloe dichotoma), mostly found in the desert regions of Namibia and South Africa’s Northern Cape province. The plant’s branches were used by the San Bushmen to make quivers for their arrows.
R: rand to rooinek
rand (noun) – South Africa’s currency, made up of 100 cents. The name comes from the Witwatersrand (Dutch for “white waters ridge”), the region in Gauteng province in which most of the country’s gold deposits are found.
ratel (noun) – Honey badger, (Mellivora capensis). Found throughout Africa, as well as in the Middle East and Asia, the ratel is one of the world’s smallest but fiercest carnivores. The animal has been classed the world’s most fearless animal for many years. “Ratel” is also the name given to the basic infantry fighting vehicle of the South African military’s mechanised infantry battalions.
red ants (noun) – Security forces used by the Johannesburg city council to evict people from shacks, flats and other dwellings. The name comes from the red overalls they wear.
Ridgeback (noun) – Formerly Rhodesian Ridgeback, a breed of southern African dog developed from a mix indigenous dogs such as the Africanis and sturdy working European breeds. The Ridgeback has short reddish fur, rising to a distinctive ridge on its back.
rock up (verb) – Arrive somewhere, often unannounced or uninvited. Example: “I was going to go out but then my china rocked up.”
rooibos (noun) – Afrikaans for “red bush”, this popular South African tea made from the Cyclopia genistoides bush is gaining worldwide popularity for its health benefits.
rooinek (noun) – English-speaking white South African, from the Afrikaans for “red neck”. It was first coined by Afrikaners to refer to immigrants from England, whose white necks were particularly prone to sunburn. See soutpiel.
S: samoosa to Swazi
samoosa (noun) – Small, spicy, triangular-shaped savoury pie deep-fried in oil, introduced to South Africa by the Indian and Malay communities. In the UK they are called “samosas”. From the Persian and Urdu.
San (noun) – Southern African Bushmen, a member of that group, or their language. From the Nama sān (meaning “aboriginals”, “settlers” or gatherers). There is some debate on the use of “San” versus “Bushman”.
sarmie (noun) – Sandwich.
scale, scaly (verb and adjective) – To scale something means to steal it. A scaly person is not to be trusted.
separate development (noun) – Grand apartheid euphemism for segregation and the “homelands” policy. The argument was that the different races, separated in a single country, would be allowed to develop according to their own ability and culture. The reality was gross exploitation and poverty for black South Africans, and undeserved and unbalanced prosperity for the country’s white people.
Sepedi (noun) – Another name for Sesotho sa Leboa, the Northern Sotho language of the Basotho people.
Sesotho (noun) – Southern Sotho language of the Basotho people.
Sesotho sa Leboa (noun) – Northern Sotho (literally “Sotho of the north”) language of the Basotho people. Identified in Founding Provisions of the South African Constitution, which deals in part with language rights, as “Sepedi”.
Setswana (noun) – Bantu language of the Tswana people.
shame (exclamation) – Broadly denotes sympathetic feeling or pleasure. Someone admiring a baby, kitten or puppy might say: “Ag shame!” to emphasise its cuteness. Also used to express sympathy. As writer Jacob Dlamini says: “Only in South Africa would people use the word shame when a baby is born (“Shame, what a beautiful baby!”); when that baby falls and hurts itself (“Shame, poor thing!”) and when that baby dies (“Ag shame, what a shame!”). To us, shame is just one of those words that have become something of an omnibus. We use it to mean whatever we want it to mean.”
sharp (exclamation) – Often doubled up for effect as “sharp-sharp!”, the word is used as a greeting, a farewell, for agreement or just to express enthusiasm.
shebeen (noun) – Township tavern, illegal under the apartheid regime, often set up in a private house. Similar to a US prohibition-era speakeasy. From the 18th-century Anglo-Irish síbín, from séibe, “mugful”.
Shona (noun) – A member of a Bantu-language-speaking group of people found in northern parts of South Africa, but mostly in southern Zimbabwe, and their language.
shongololo, songololo (noun) – Large brown millipede, from the isiXhosa and isiZulu ukushonga (to roll up).
shot (noun) – Good, yes, it’s been done.
shweet (noun) – Good, yes.
siSwati (noun) – Nguni language of the Swazi people.
sjambok (noun and verb) – Stout leather whip made from animal hide. As verb, to hit someone or something with the whip. From the Dutch tjambok , from the Urdu chābuk .
skelm (noun and adverb) – Shifty or untrustworthy person; a criminal. As an adverb, to do something on the sly. From the Afrikaans, from the Dutch schelm.
skinner (noun and verb) – Gossip, to gossip. A person who gossips is known as a skinnerbek (gossip mouth). From the Afrikaans.
skollie (noun) – Gangster, criminal, from the Greek skolios, crooked.
skop, skiet en donner (noun) – Action movie. Taken from Afrikaans, it literally means “kick, shoot and beat up”.
skrik (noun) – Fright: “I caught a big skrik” means “I got a big fright”. From the Afrikaans.
skrik vir niks (adjective) – Scared of nothing. From the Afrikaans.
slap chips chips) (noun) – French fries, usually soft, oily and vinegar-drenched. Slap is Afrikaans for “limp”.
smokes (noun) – Cigarettes.
snoek (noun) – Popular and tasty fish (Thyrsites atun) of the southern oceans. From the Afrikaans.
snotsiekte (noun) – Malignant catarrhal fever, a disease to which wildebeest are prone, characterised by excessive production of nasal mucous, or snot. From the Afrikaans snot (snot) and siekte (sickness).
sosatie (noun) – Kebab on a stick. Afrikaans, from the South African Dutch sasaattje , from the Javanese sesate. Java, like the Cape, was a Dutch East India Company colony.
Sotho (noun) – Member of a group of people living mainly in Lesotho, Botswana and the northern parts of South Africa, and their languages.
South African War (noun) – Modern term for the Anglo-Boer War of 1880 to 1881, to more accurately reflect that while the named combatants were the British and Boers, other communities – such as Africans and Indians – also took part.
soutpiel (noun) – English-speaking white South African, literally “salty penis” in Afrikaans. The idea is the soutpiel has one foot in South Africa, the other in England, with the penis dipped in the ocean between. See rooinek.
Soweto (noun) – South Africa’s largest township, in the south of the City of Johannesburg municipality. From the abbreviation of South Western Townships.
spanspek (noun) – Cantaloupe, an orange-fleshed melon. The word comes from the Afrikaans Spaanse spek , meaning “Spanish bacon”. The story goes that Juana Smith, the Spanish wife of 19th-century Cape governor Harry Smith, ate melon instead of bacon for breakfast, and her Afrikaans-speaking servants coined the word.
spookgerook (adjective) – Literally, in Afrikaans, ghost-smoked – mad, paranoid or high.
springbok (noun) – South African gazelle Antidorcas marsupialis, known for leaping in the air (“pronking”) when disturbed, under predator attack or as display. The springbok is South Africa’s national animal. From the Afrikaans spring (jump or spring) and bok (buck).
Springboks (noun) – South African national rugby team, known affectionately as the Bokke. From the springbok, South Africa’s national animal.
stoep (noun) – Porch or verandah. From the Dutch (via Afrikaans) stoep, steps or a raised elevation in front of a house, related to “step”.
stompie (noun) – Cigarette butt. From the Afrikaans stomp (stump). The term “picking up stompies” means intruding into a conversation towards its end, without knowing what had been discussed.
stroppy (adjective) – Difficult, uncooperative, argumentative or stubborn. Originated in the 1950s, perhaps as a shortening of obstreperous.
struesbob (exclamation) – “As true as Bob”, as true as God, the gospel truth.
sure, sure-sure, for sure (exclamation) – Yes; general affirmative.
Swallows (noun) – Moroka Swallows, a South African Premier Soccer League football team with a home base in the Soweto suburb of Moroka.
Swazi, siSwati (noun) – The Swazi people, and their language.
T: takkie to tune
takkie, tekkie (noun) – Basic running shoe or sneaker. Possibly from “tacky”, meaning “cheap” or “of poor quality”.
tannie (noun) – “Auntie” in Afrikaans, but used for any older woman.
taxi (noun) – Generally a minibus used to transport a large number of people, and the most-used form of transport in South Africa.
to die for (adjective) – Wonderful, beautiful, coveted: “That lipstick is to die for.”
tokoloshe (noun) – Evil imp or spirit, thought to be most active at night. Part of South African folklore and today often the subject of tabloid journalism. From the isiZulu utokoloshe and isiXhosa uthikoloshe (river-spirit).
tom (noun) – Money. Uncertain origin.
toppie (noun) – Middle-aged or elderly man, or father. From either the isiZulu thopi (growing sparsely, a reference to thinning hair), or the Hindi topi (hat).
township (noun) – Low-income dormitory suburb outside a city or town in which black South Africans were required by law to live, while they sold their labour in the city or town centre, during the apartheid era.
toyi-toyi (noun) – A knees-up protest dance. From the isiNdebele and Shona.
trek (noun) – Long and often arduous journey. Best known from the Great Trek, the long journey by oxwagon the forebears of the Afrikaners took from the Cape Colony into the South African interior to escape British colonialism, beginning in the 1820s.
tsessebe (noun) – African antelope (Damaliscus lunatus) found in southern and eastern Africa.
Tshivenda (noun) – Language of the Venda people.
tsotsi (noun) – Gangster, hoodlum or thug – and the title of South Africa’s first Oscar-winning movie. Perhaps a corruption of “zoot suit”, the type of flashy clothing worn by township thugs in the 1950s.
Tsotsitaal (noun) – Township patois, derived from 1950s gangster slang, made up of a mixture of Afrikaans and isiZulu, and largely spoken in Gauteng. From the Tostsitaal tsotsi (gangster) and Afrikaans taal (language).
Tswana (noun) – Member of a group of people mainly found in Botswana and northern South Africa, and their language.
tune, tune me, tune grief, tune me grief (verb) – Cause trouble; challenge me.
U: ubuntu to Umkhonto we Sizwe
ubuntu (noun) – Southern African humanist philosophy of fellowship and community, based on the notion that a person is a person because of other people: “I am who I am because of you”. From the isiZulu for “humanity” or “goodness”.
Umkhonto (noun) – Short form of Umkhonto we Sizwe.
Umkhonto we Sizwe (noun) – Army of the exiled African National Congress during the struggle against apartheid; since 1994 amalgamated into the South African National Defence Force. From the isiZulu for “spear of the nation”.
V: veld to vuvuzela
veld (noun) – Open grassland. From the Afrikaans, from the Dutch for “field”.
veldskoen, velskoen (noun) – Simple unworked leather shoes. From the Afrikaans veld (field) or vel (skin or hide) and skoen (shoe).
Venda (noun) – South African population group largely found in Limpopo province, who speak the Tshivenda language.
verkramp (adjective) – Extremely politically conservative or reactionary. From the Afrikaans for “narrow” or “cramped”.
voema (noun) – Variant spelling of woema.
voetsek (exclamation) – Go away, buzz off. From the Afrikaans, originally from the 19th-century Dutch voort seg ik (be off I say).
voetstoets (adjective) – “As is” or “with all its faults”. A legal term, used in the sale of a car or house. If the item is sold voetstoets the buyer may not claim for any defects, hidden or otherwise, discovered after the sale. From the Afrikaans, originally from the Dutch met de voet te stoten (to push with the foot).
vrot (adjective) – Rotten or smelly. From the Afrikaans.
W: walkie-talkie to wors
wildebeest (noun) – Gnu; large African antelope of two species (the blue or black wildebeest, genus Connochaetes) with a long head and sloping back. From the Afrikaans wilde (wild) and beest (beast).
windgat (noun) – Show-off or blabbermouth. From the Afrikaans wind (wind) and gat (hole).
woema (noun) – Speed or power, oomph. From the Afrikaans.
woes (adjective) – Angry, irritated or aggressive. From the Afrikaans.
wonderboom (noun) – Wild fig (Ficus salicifolia), native to southern Africa. Also the name of a suburb of the city of Pretoria, and a South African pop group. From the Afrikaans wonder (wonder or marvel) and boom (tree).
wors (noun) – Short for “boerewors”, a savoury sausage developed by the Boers, the forebears of today’s Afrikaners, some 200 years ago, and still popular at braais across South Africa. Also known as wors. From the Afrikaans boer (farmer) and wors (sausage, Dutch worst).
XYZ: Xhosa to Zulu
Xhosa (noun) – Nguni-language-speaking people of South Africa, found mainly in the Eastern Cape province.
Xitsonga (noun) – Nguni language of the Tsonga people.
yellow rice (noun) – Rice cooked with turmeric and raisins, often served with curry.
Zebu (noun) – Long-horned and often hump-backed varieties of cattle (Bos indicus), originally from India but now found in a large number of breeds across Africa. South African breeds include the Nguni and Afrikaner.
zol (noun) – Hand-rolled cigarette or marijuana joint.
Additional information sourced from:
- A Dictionary of South African English by Jean Branford, Oxford University Press USA (1980). ISBN 0195701771
- A Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles, Rhodes University Dictionary Unit for South African English
- Glossary of South African English Regionalisms, Wiktionary
- List of South African slang words, Wikipedia
Researched and written by Mary Alexander.
Updated 2 June 2021.