Shiok, shiok

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Taylor Swift sings "shake, shake", but in Singapore and Malaysia, everybody is saying "shiok, shiok".

Source:  "Where or how did the phrase Shiok or Syiok used in Malaysia & Singapore originate?" (Quora, Feb. 2015)

Recently, there were two missed opportunities for me to bring up "shiok".

In the latter post, I listed "shiok" as one of the 19 Singaporean terms added to the OED in its latest update, but I didn't go into any detail about it.  Now I feel that it is time to make amends.  That is especially so because "shiok" was featured in these two articles that I overlooked earlier this year:

At the website linked to just under the picture above, there are some good comments on the probable origin of "shiok".  Muhammad Syawalfiza, citing this online dictionary of Malay, says,

The word "syok" or" syiok" come from Malay word "seronok"  means enjoy. It a Malay slang commonly use to describe how enjoy full the person's or group were in a situations.

When does it start being use, probably after 1957 (no verified source).

Khadijah Latiff observes,

The word "asyik" (pronounced a-shick) in Malay language means to have a feeling of overwhelming passion or infatuation for someone or something. It can also mean being absorbed in a state of bliss, time-wasting, or intoxication.

The word "asyik" is contextually used for being absorbed in love or absorbed in a very good book, or absorbed in music, and you enjoy it so much that you forget the time and other things.

"Syiok" is slang for "asyik", pronounced (shi-ock) sometimes extended to emphasize the overwhelming feeling. Used in context for everything awesome that is supposed to induce the feelings of something "mengasyikan" or blissfully out of this world.

Being "syiok sendiri" means to be self-absorbed. You're in love with yourself and you're completely absorbed in yourself without regard for others.

The word "asyik-asyik" means persistently.

It is possible that the word "asyik" has Sanskrit roots, as with many other words in the Malay language.

Alvin Arulselvan notes,

Oddly some websites claim that it originates from the Punjabi wor[d] "shauk" which is an expression of satisfaction.I don't speak Punjabi so I can't verify this.

There seems to be little doubt that "shiok" entered Singaporean English from Malay.  But where did the Malays get the term from?  Most people seem to think that it doesn't have an Austronesian root.  As we've seen above there are suggestions that it came from Sanskrit or from Punjabi.  Even if it came from Punjabi, it would still most likely be fundamentally a Sanskritic term.  So I shall concentrate on first trying to find whether there is any evidence or likelihood that "shiok" really did come from Punjabi.

I asked Sunny Singh his opinion:

I don't know. The Punjabi word "shiok" is sometimes pronounced with a nasal sound, thus "shionk", depending on the district.  Means enjoyable hobby or enjoyable pastime.

"Shonki" from "shonk" means fanatic or addict, in a positive sense.  A "sports shonki" is a "sports fanatic".

This is pure Punjabi rural slang, i doubt that it exists in Hindi.

This song is about a guy who has a "shionk" for weapons:

"Mitra Nu Shonk Hathiara Da" – Babbu Mann

[VHM:  A really fun listen / watch!]

There was a famous Jatha Dhadhi performer named Amar Singh, a Jatt, who was from Hoshiarpur region of Punjab, close to where my family was from. He went by the title "Shonki".  Here's his biography, which includes a nice picture of the instrument that he played.

The British brought many Sikhs to Malaya already starting from the latter part of the 19th century, mostly to serve as police, whom they trusted greatly.

All things considered, a Punjabi origin for "shiok" does not seem improbable, but I would be eager to hear counterproposals and refinements if anyone has them.

Just when I was about to sign off on "shiok", I thought that I'd better take another look at the entry for "shiok" in the OED.

Here are the definitions:

Singapore English.
A. int.

  Expressing admiration or approval: ‘cool!’ ‘great!’

1977   New Nation (Singapore) 26 May 19/2   Fantas. Ooh-la-la. Phew-whew. Wowie. Shiok. Jazzy, man. Beaut.
1992   Straits Times (Singapore) (Nexis) 15 May   English-educated Singaporeans know that there is an Ah Kow within them dying to burst out with a proclamative wah shiok man!
1995   Straits Times (Singapore) (Nexis) 24 Apr.   Wah lau, if got such a dictionary, damn good, y'know. You read, sure can laugh. Shiok man.
2006   Edge (Malaysia) (Nexis) 2 Jan.   Gold taps, gold bathtub, gold dinner table… Wah shiok.

 B. adj.

 1. Of food, a meal, etc.: delicious, superb.

1978   Straits Times (Singapore) 8 July 16/1 (advt.)    Help preserve the essence of ‘shiok’ cooking!
1999   8 Days 4 Dec. 70/2   The wasabi potato salad on the side was another inspired concoction that shocked yet seduced—much like tasting a shiok curry for the first time.
2014   Today (Singapore) (Nexis) 27 Mar. 74   We hear the Nyonya Lobster Laksa is pretty shiok.

 2. As a general term of approval: admirable, enjoyable, excellent.

1980   Sunday Times (Singapore) 5 Oct. 10/6   Singlish sounds them shiok at times, wouldn't you agree?
1993   Straits Times (Singapore) (Nexis) 26 July   I didn't know who sang it but I thought it was really shiok.
2001   Business Times (Singapore) (Nexis) 30 Oct.   Your job very shiok—a lot of parties and drinking right?
2014   S. J. Rozan in C. L.-L. Tan Singapore Noir 122   Things were..better than not bad—everything was shiok, lah. Great.

And, right at the top of the entry, just after the pronunciation guide (British, U.S., and Singapore and Malaysian English) and frequency indicator, I was very happy to see this etymology:

< Malay syok pleasing, attractive < Persian šoḵ cheerful, spirited, ultimately < Arabic (compare šawq desire, passion).

Couldn't ask for more.

Before closing, I just want to mention another interesting Singlish expression that I noticed when I looked up "shiok" in the Wikipedia article on Singlish vocabulary:

To express sheer delight with an experience, especially when eating great food. Popularly exclaimed in a single word "Shiok!", or combined with another – "Shiok man!", "So shiok!"

The other expression I noticed was "jiak kantang", partly because it had a very long, intriguing definition, but also for a couple of other reasons that I shall explain momentarily:

Literally means 'eat potato'. Formed by the Hokkien term "Jiak" (eat) and Malay term "Kentang" (potato). It is a pejorative term referring to pompous condescending intellectuals who are slightly more educated about Western cultures. "Eating more potato" means more westernized than being Asian (eating rice). Also refers to someone displaying a western English accent that is not authentic: referring to the sound that one would make while attempting to speak with a mouthful of potato.

I found this expression particularly intriguing because, in being a Singlishism formed from a Sinitic verb and a Malay noun, it encapsulates the linguistic mix that surrounds one in Singapore.  I was also attracted to "jiak kantang" because it uses potatoes in the mouth as a metaphor for manner of speaking and hence cultural pretension.  That in itself is a fascinating notion to me, but we had also just been discussing the terminology and taxonomy for potatoes in the comments to this post: "Words for cereals" (7/27/16).

A final observation:  among the hundreds of Singlish words listed in the Wikipedia article on that subject, only a tiny handful are from Mandarin or Indian languages.  The vast majority are from Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Malay, and English (used in special senses not known to native speakers of English).  This goes a long way toward describing the nature and milieu of Singlish.

[h.t. Geok Hoon (Janet) Williams]


  1. Ben Zimmer said,

    July 31, 2016 @ 4:57 pm

    When the movie "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" came out in 1999, foreign censors had to figure out what to do with the naughty word shag. In Singapore, they tried to replace it with shiok. AP article here.

  2. Ben Zimmer said,

    July 31, 2016 @ 5:03 pm

    Via Facebook, Rebecca Starr of the National University of Singapore recently shared this peculiar McDonald's ad, which combines jiak kantang and shiok.

  3. Gene Anderson said,

    July 31, 2016 @ 5:06 pm

    Eat is chia' (glottal stop) in proper Min-nan /Hokkien; jiak is dialect or Singaporean. When I lived in Singapore in 1971 Hokkien was pretty much the lingua franca, and the old Hokkien literary readings (derived from Tang court language) stood duty for "Mandarin," confusing some actual Mandarin speakers who visited! Real Mandarin is a latecomer. Cantonese and Hakka were pretty common, and of course Bahasa Malaysia. Hokkien picked up a lot of Malay loanwords, such as sotong for squid. The most wide-traveling (actually probably borrowed into Hokkien in Melaka or Indonesia, not Singapore) has been sate, borrowed into Hokkien as "sand tea"–pronounced "sa te" in Hokkien, but becoming "sha cha" in Mandarin and Cantonese. Now sha cha jiang has evolved into a rather different sauce, in China, from proper satay sauce, leaving total confusion–I should think– How many would wonder how on earth it got such a name?

  4. Tempy said,

    July 31, 2016 @ 5:54 pm

    Regarding Taylor Swift's use of shake — she does not appear to be aware of its meaning, as it occurs in pop music. Even back in an article from 1927 (G. B. Johnson, "Double Meaning in the Popular Negro Blues", Journal of Abnormal Psychology 22 p. 16) one finds "‘Shake it’, ‘shake that thing’, etc. Such expressions are very frequent in the blues. Ostensibly they refer to dancing, but they are really Negro vulgar expressions relating to coitus."

  5. Victor Mair said,

    July 31, 2016 @ 6:09 pm

    Thanks, Tempy.

    The meaning to which you allude may be in the background, but — I've listened to this song hundreds of times — and what Taylor Swift really means by it is "shake it off" (what's troubling her).

    I stay up too late, got nothing in my brain
    That's what people say mmm, that's what people say mm
    I go on too many dates, but I can't make 'em stay
    At least that's what people say mmm, that's what people say mmm

    But I keep cruising, can't stop, won't stop moving
    It's like I got this music in my body and it's gonna be alright

    'Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
    And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
    Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
    I shake it off, I shake it off
    Heartbreakers gonna break, break, break, break, break
    And the fakers gonna fake, fake, fake, fake, fake
    Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
    I shake it off, I shake it off

  6. Bessel Dekker said,

    July 31, 2016 @ 7:43 pm

    It is doubtful whether "asyik" ('fond, infatuated, passionate, busy') is from the Sanskrit. Russell Jones, ed., /Loan-Words in Indonesian and Malay/ indicates that it is a loan from Arabic "āshiq". This tallies with the fact that the latter form appears to be an Islamic given name.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    July 31, 2016 @ 9:03 pm

    From Yilise:

    It's quite interesting that I've known and used the word "shiok" most of my life and have never really thought about the origin.

    Interestingly, there's a Singaporean restaurant called "Shiok" very near me in Menlo Park, CA. I've always thought it's a very apt name for a Singaporean restaurant.

  8. A-gu said,

    July 31, 2016 @ 9:24 pm

    Could it be 爽 from Hokkien?

  9. ahkow said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 1:42 am

    @Gene Anderson, re transcription of "jiak kantang":

    In Malay / Singlish, orthographic k is often pronounced as a glottal stop.

    The "j" initial is an unaspirated alveolar affricate (IPA [ts]), borrowed from Hanyu Pinyin. Older transcriptions of this term usually show "ch" initials.

    My 1986 version of Sylvia Toh's Lagi Goondu! (this and the earlier Eh, Goondu (1982) contain good (but humorous) descriptions of lexical items unique to Singapore in that era) gives the following entry for "eat potatoes" (p. 94)

    "Eat potatoes". Hokkien-Malay. Because potatoes is a staple food of the west, any native branded "chia kantang" is one who speaks with a pronounced accent (American, English), unnaturally.

  10. ahkow said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 1:49 am

    And of course, there is an Eh, Goondu entry for shiok, p. 59:

    Malay. Misappropriately used so often — instead of "sedap" — that "shiok" is now accepted as "sedap" (delicious). "Shiok" correctly employed is "ecstacy" such as produced when you can administer a good long awaited scratche to an itch. Now applied to any good meal. And when the meal is better than good it is "shioko".

    (I have never heard of "shioko".)

  11. Linda said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 6:28 am

    And the English equivalent of eat potato is talk with a plum in your mouth.

  12. Lameen said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 6:37 am

    As Bessel correctly notes, asyik must be from Arabic `āšiq عاشق "infatuated, passionate", a participle of the verb `šq.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 7:22 am

    @Bessel Dekker @Lameen

    So this is in accord with the OED etymology for "shiok" that I gave above in the O.P., right?

  14. languagehat said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 9:26 am

    So this is in accord with the OED etymology for "shiok" that I gave above in the O.P., right?

    Not really; Khadijah Latiff's "asyik" is from Arabic `āšiq, and the latter is from the same root as the OED's šawq 'desire, passion,' but "asyik" has nothing to do with "shiok" (other than this remote etymological connection).

  15. Victor Mair said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 9:50 am

    From Brian Spooner:

    I am currently working on the Persian koine spreading through the Persianate ecumene, starting in the 9th century and lasting till the 19th century, creating the Persianate Millennium. I am dealing mainly with Central Asia. But because of ibn Battuta I have always wondered to what extent southeast Asia was related. It is interesting to find these things in Singapore. Shawq is a significant Arabo-Persian word. And even though `ashiq is a different root, the meanings are so close that I have often wondered whether a Semitic philologist might have something to say about them.

  16. languagehat said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 10:26 am

    even though `ashiq is a different root

    D'oh! A reminder to always check, never assume.

    Also, I've been interested in that Persian koine for years, and look forward eagerly to your book (?) on the Persianate Millennium.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 11:42 am

    From John Huehnergard:

    There is an Arabic word šawq ([ʃɑwq] or [ʃo:q]) meaning ‘longing, yearning, craving, desire, wish’ (according to Wehr’s Arabic-English Dict.).

  18. Bessel Dekker said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 12:09 pm

    @Victor Mair,

    I cannot find the OED etymology you gave: I do apologise, and I assure you I have searched the links. Could you provide a specific pointer?
    Meanwhile, the idea that "shiok" is related to "asyik" makes sense to me. Mind you, this is my personal impression.
    A putative relation to "seronok", by contrast, looks fanciful to put it mildly. The latter word strikes me as morphologically Austronesian, and to corroborate this, it is not to be found in Russell's quite thorough loan-word dictionary.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 12:38 pm

    @Bessel Dekker

    The link for the OED entry on "shiok", which I copy above with all of the dated attestations, is about halfway through the original post. It ends with their etymology.

  20. Bessel Dekker said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 1:46 pm

    Sorry for overlooking that, Victor; what can I have been doing? I agree that 'this is in accord with the OED etymology for "shiok"'. As for Languagehat's objection, I cannot share it. Whether the etymology is direct or circuitous (IF it is) seems tangential.

  21. languagehat said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 2:54 pm

    As for Languagehat's objection, I cannot share it. Whether the etymology is direct or circuitous (IF it is) seems tangential.

    You don't seem to be understanding my point; perhaps a parallel will help. Suppose someone were to say that truck farming is so called because it involves carrying produce in trucks. Sounds obvious, right? Well, it turns out it's totally wrong; a truck garden is a market-garden, and the "truck" is from French troc ‘barter.’ The similarity with the word for a wheeled vehicle (from Latin trochus = Greek τροχός ‘hoop’) is sheer coincidence. Similarly, Arabic šawq and `ashiq are from different Semitic roots. Historical linguistics can be counterintuitive (which is part of what makes it such fun).

    I trust it's obvious that "shiok" is from šawq and not `ashiq.

  22. Leo said,

    August 2, 2016 @ 1:32 am

    My boyfriend once used a picture of me to illustrate the concept of "shiok". I shall never cease boasting.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 8:14 am

    For the sexual connotations of "shiok", see:

    "SinGweesh on Wednesday: Shiok already?" (6/24/15)

    This goes right along with what Leo just wrote.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 7:47 am

    The Monacle Minute, Talk of the town (8/4/16)


    Travellers on board Jetstar Asia flights to Singapore are in for a surprise next week. The airline has just announced that it will introduce Singlish on its flights in celebration of Singapore’s National Day on 9 August. Passengers in the air on the country’s 51st anniversary will be greeted in the city’s unofficial tongue: a hodgepodge of dialects and the state’s languages of English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. Historically the government frowned upon the vernacular: it views the proper use of English as fundamental to Singapore’s economic ties with the world. In 2000 the government even rolled out the Speak Good English Movement to crush its use. Yet Singlish proved invincible and has since established itself as a distinctive component of the Singaporean identity, particularly after certain words such as lepak (laid back) were added to the Oxford English Dictionary earlier this year. As big brands such as Jetstar throw support behind the lingo, it seems this cultural quirk isn’t going away any time soon. Now that’s what we call shiok.


  25. Victor Mair said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 7:56 am

    From Stefan Krasowski:

    Singlish on Jetstar flights. I had tremendous difficulty adapting to Singlish with Penn friends. Combination of Chinese English and the Indian ability to emphasize the wrong syllables in every English word.

    [VHM: Stefan is Rapid Travel Chai]

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