"Add oil"

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If you attend Chinese sporting events, you will often hear fans exhort their team to jiāyóu 加油.  Should you ask them what that means, they might reply "add oil", which would undoubtedly leave you feeling rather puzzled.  From the context, functionally you know that it must mean something like "go!".  But how one gets from "add oil" to "go" remains something of a mystery.  Cf. the comments to "Non-translation" (7/24/16).

It's all spelled out in this article:  "How 2014 Hong Kong protests popularised the phrase 'add oil'" (Lisa Lim, SCMP, 9/11/16).

At the height of Hong Kong's 2014 pro-democracy protests, media artists launched a website for world-wide messages of support to be sent to protesters, displayed in real-time online, and projected onto buildings at protest sites. That they named the initiative the "Add Oil Machine for OCLP [Occupy Central with Love and Peace]" marked a significant step in the evolu­tion of English in Cantonese-dominant Hong Kong.

An expression of exhortation in Cantonese, 加油 (ga1yau4; "add/increase fuel") is well known to Hongkongers, originating as a Macau Grand Prix chant during the 1960s and now used to cheer a team on or as encouragement in challenging times – exams, physical exertion, boyfriend trouble.

Now the term has come into English (at least the Hong Kong variety) as "add oil".  But I suspect that it may originally have derived from English in another form before it was used in Cantonese on the racing circuit during the 60s.  I remember way back when I was in high school (in the 50s), the cheerleaders used to tell their team to "step on the gas".  So the concept of ga1yau4 / jiāyóu 加油 ("add oil / gas") was already out there.

[h.t. Ben Zimmer]



16 Comments

  1. Thorin said,

    September 13, 2016 @ 3:38 pm

    It reminds me of the German "Gas geben" (pedal to the metal; get to it; accelerate). But in German it doesn't mean to add oil or gas, so they're not entirely similar.

  2. Alexander Power said,

    September 13, 2016 @ 3:40 pm

    I remember hearing this (in Chinese) in the 90s at sporting events. My take on the idiomatic translation into English was something like "let's heat things up".

  3. secretivek said,

    September 13, 2016 @ 4:01 pm

    "Step on the gas", or "add fuel" is *exactly* what it means. In (HK) Cantonese, when you are driving, "ga1yau4" is exactly what you say when you want someone to push down on the accelerator pedal. I'm not even sure if there's any other common phrase that would be used.

  4. chris said,

    September 13, 2016 @ 6:37 pm

    I was thinking of something that literally burned oil, like a lamp, but apparently it's just a confusion between oil and other burnable liquids.

    It would hardly be confusing for fans to tell their team to hit the gas.

  5. Surly Duff said,

    September 13, 2016 @ 9:47 pm

    "¡Dale gas!" means the same in Spanish, both literally and figuratively

  6. Willy J said,

    September 13, 2016 @ 10:27 pm

    Isn't this related to the American expression "pour it on", which may have come from "pour on the coal "?

  7. Movenon said,

    September 13, 2016 @ 10:57 pm

    In Cantonese, we say ga1 yau2, not ga1 yau4. yau4 without a changed tone refers to any sort of generic oil used for cooking, like fa1 sang1 yau4 (peanut oil) or si6 yau4 (soy sauce). Yau2 (Yau4*2) refers to gasoline, like yap6 yau2 "fill up gas/petrol."

  8. Jon said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 1:43 am

    I've always assumed that the British expression 'Give it some wellie' meant the same as 'Step on the gas'. It's used to mean try harder, go faster, etc. I like it, it has a pleasant local, rural air to it.

  9. Jin Defang said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 6:09 am

    I've heard this slogan at Taiwanese election rallies ever since I can remember—-certainly it way predated Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement. It also appears in mandarin-language films, with the clear meaning of "go for it." Just as Jon says above–try harder, go faster. And keep up the good work,

  10. Fred said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 6:16 am

    Reminds of the Hungarian expression 'Adj rá egy kis kakaót!' (add some cocoa) i.e. turn up the volume.

  11. Johan P said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 6:49 am

    In Swedish there's "Lägg på ett kol" – add another piece of coal.

  12. RachelP said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 12:07 pm

    Okay, so now I'm thinking that 30 years in Luxembourg has left me unable to tell English from Euro-English. I honestly thought "give it some gas" for speed up, or to go hard at something (either literally in a car, or figuratively) was normal usage, but I'm guessing from the above it must be a literal translation from the German, and not normally used by native speakers.

  13. Bathrobe said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 12:24 am

    油門 yóumén ('oil gate') is, of course, the accelerator in Chinese. 汽油 qìyóu is gasoline or petrol. It seems to me that 加油 jiāyóu 'add gas' is precisely the origin of the phrase. And if I remember rightly (no guarantee with my memory), 收油 shōuyóu is a term for taking your foot off the accelerator.

  14. Jack said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 10:43 am

    "Give it some gas" sounds like alright English to me. I think I'd be more likely to say that about a grill than a car, but it would make sense to say about a car as well.

  15. Emma said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 6:32 pm

    I've been saying "add oil" with my Taiwanese American friends since the mid 90's. We used the English version back then when we were typing on AOL Instant Messenger. Ahhh, memories.

  16. William said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 10:12 am

    I've always loved that "mets de l'huile" totally makes sense in French. Maybe not at a sporting event but there was a pretty popular song with that title in the 90s.

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