New Singaporean and Hong Kong terms in the OED

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"The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) added 19 Singaporean terms and 13 Hong Kong terms in its latest update."  So reports BBC News in "Singapore terms join Oxford English Dictionary" (5/12/16)

Here are the lists:


Hong Kong:

At a glance, it is easy to tell that they come from a variety of sources, including Cantonese, Hokkien, Malay, Persian, Arabic, Hindi-Urdu, and English.

I will not define or comment on each of these items individually, since one can readily look them up in the OED itself, where the entries include etymologies when they are known.  What I shall do, however, is provide notes on a few terms that have special significance for me or perhaps for certain segments of the Language Log readership.  In some cases, when I know them off the top of my head, I will also provide the MSM pronunciations for words that actually derive from other Sinitic topolects

1. ang moh — from Hokkien; MSM hóngmáo 红毛 ("red hair", i.e., originally referred especially to the Dutch, but later was applied to Europeans in general)

2. char siu — from Cantonese caa1siu1; MSM chāshāo 叉燒 (lit., "fork-roast", i.e., "barbecued pork")

3. wah — I love this exclamation.  Around 1969 in Seattle, I learned it from Pinky Wu, granddaughter of Wang Ching-wei (1883-1944), head of state of the Reorganized National Government of China based in Nanjing during WWII.  Pinky would use it to express admiration, surprise, amazement, or delight, and it was just wonderful to hear her say it with so many different intonations and nuances.  (Pinky seemed to say "wah" about every tenth word, so tickled was she by almost everything.)  I picked "wah" up from Pinky and still to this day I use it where most Americans would probably say "wow!"  The reason I think "wah" is so effective in expressing the emotions that Pinky used it for is that the syllable does not close at the end; it just lingers on and on:  wahhhhh! — but it can also be brief and terse when called for.  Although I do think that "wow" looks nicer on the page than "wah", the intrinsic nature of "wow" is that, when spoken, it closes off at the end:  wow!  So it's hard to prolong your feeling of astonishment, stupefaction, and so forth.  Wahhhhhhhh!  N.B.:  This is a totally different "wah" from the Dartmouth Indian cheer (also picked up by Virginia):  wa-hoo-wa.  For other aspects of the Dartmouth topolect, see:

"Schlump season" (3/21/15)

4. Chinese helicopter — "a derogatory term referring to a Singaporean whose schooling was conducted in Mandarin Chinese and has limited knowledge of English"

5. compensated dating — "the practice of teenage students providing companionship or sex in exchange for money or gifts"; seems to be a euphemism for something else

6. guanxi — MSM guānxì 關係 ("connections")

7. milk tea — Cantonese naai5caa4; MSM nǎichá 奶茶; I first fell in love with this type of tea during the mid-60s in South Asia, where it was called doodh / dudh patti / ki chai.  I love drinking milk tea as much as I love saying "wah".  After taking a sip of fantastic milk tea (as from the best estates in Darjeeling or on Alishan (Taiwan), I will exclaim with satisfaction, "wahhhh…".

8. shroff — detailed discussion about 3/4s of the way down in the o.p. here.

9. siu mei — Cantonese siu1mei2 / MSM shāo wèi 燒味 ("meats roasted on spits over an open fire"), not to be confused with Cantonese siu1maai6*2 / MSM shāomài 燒賣 (pork and mushroom dumplings served as part of dim sum [see here]; N.B.:  the next edition of the American Heritage Dictionary will have an excellent new etymology for "shumai"

10. yum cha — from Cantonese; in MSM that would be yǐnchá 飲茶 (lit., "drink tea"), but it signifies something different in Cantonese, where it is pronounced jam2 caa4 and means "go out for dim sum"; for "drink tea", Mandarin speakers would say "hēchá 喝茶" or, in some colloquial varieties, "chīchá 吃茶" (lit., "eat tea"), for which see "Don't eat the water" (3/17/15).

For "yum cha", see here (passim) and here, here

"[F]or a visual timeline of Southeast Asian words in the OED, including words from or about Singapore, dating from 1555 to the present", click here.

[h.t. Carmen Lee]

Update: "Chinese helicopter" under attack (5/28/16)


  1. Jim Breen said,

    May 12, 2016 @ 7:24 pm

    I'm surprised yum cha wasn't there already. It's been used here (Australia) for decades.

    As for "compensated dating", I know it as the common and rather euphemistic translation of the Japanese 援助交際 (enjōkōsai). I wonder if it entered Hong Kong from Japan?

  2. Theophylact said,

    May 12, 2016 @ 7:36 pm

    Char siu pretty common here in restaurants.

  3. Vicki said,

    May 12, 2016 @ 8:19 pm

    I ran across "wet market" in Hong Kong almost twenty years ago (on a fairly short visit). I wonder how many of the other terms here are used in both Hong Kong and Singapore.

  4. Janne said,

    May 12, 2016 @ 9:30 pm

    @Jim Breen(1) Yes, it seems it originated in Japan then spread to other Asian countries in translation.

    I also kind of wonder about marking Char siu as Hong Kong or Singaporean when it's obviously Chinese in origin.

    1) Thank you so very much for your work on Japanese dictionary data!

  5. Jenny Chu said,

    May 12, 2016 @ 10:27 pm

    Char siu is a particularly British-influenced way of transliterating 叉燒. (How many of my American friends have been misdirected into asking for "charrrrr siu bao" when they saw "叉燒包 – char siu bao" on a menu for the first time!) So I guess in that one sense it would seem to be a term of Singapore/Hong Kong origin.

  6. Jenny Chu said,

    May 12, 2016 @ 11:43 pm

    Or, maybe @Janne, it is due to the perception of Chinese as a "backward language"?

  7. ajay said,

    May 13, 2016 @ 6:24 am

    maybe @Janne, it is due to the perception of Chinese as a "backward language"?

    A wholly erroneous perception. Arabic and Hebrew are backward languages. Chinese is more of a vertically downward language.

  8. mollymooly said,

    May 13, 2016 @ 6:38 am

    Arabic and Hebrew are backwards languages. This is one case where the British-English -ward/-wards adjective/adverb distinction is useful.

  9. Chas Belov said,

    May 13, 2016 @ 10:50 am

    What, no kiasu?

  10. Victor Mair said,

    May 14, 2016 @ 6:50 am

    "'Chinese helicopter': Singlish OED entry baffles Singaporeans" (BBC New, 5/13/16)

    A number of my Singaporean friends have communicated the same thing to me: they have never heard of "Chinese helicopter" having the meaning given in the OED.

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