"Add oil" is now English

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Two years ago, I wrote a post about the Chinese expression "'Add oil'" (9/13/16) (cf. the comments to "Non-translation" [7/24/16]). In that post, I mentioned:

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.

In a personal note, Chau Wu adds:

To echo what you said, I remember I also used the phrase 加油 when I was in elementary school (late 1940s – early 50s), both in Mandarin and Taiwanese.

Now we learn that the literal English translation of the Chinese expression has been accepted by the Oxford English Dictionary:

"Add oil: Encouraging Chinese phrase enters English dictionary" (BBC [10/18/18])

"Jia you" is a Mandarin Chinese expression used in cheers at sporting events and rallies or to encourage someone. In Cantonese, it's "ga yau".

Now the English translation – "add oil" – has been recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary.

See also this article in Chinese on Liberty Times Net.

The "Grand Prix in 1960s Macau" theory of earliest usage mentioned in the video of the BBC piece, which accepts the same "etymology" as did the SCMP article I cited in my original post, may be a little off in dating the origin, since Chau was using it more than a decade ahead of that time.

In the final analysis, perhaps we should view "add oil" < ga1yau4 / jiāyóu 加油 ("add oil / gas") < "step on the gas" as a round trip word, for which see:  "East Asian Round-Trip Words", Sino-Platonic Papers, 34 (October, 1992).


  1. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    October 19, 2018 @ 7:14 am

    I'm not being deliberately obtuse here, but does the English language really _need_ the expression "add oil", when we already have "step on the gas", "step on it", "give it some gas", "get a move on", "gun it", etc? If dictionaries are to reflect the language as she is spoke, are we to believe that there are native English speakers out there saying (outside of a Jiffy Lube, say), "add oil"?

  2. Ross Presser said,

    October 19, 2018 @ 8:59 am

    @Benjamin E. Orsatti:

    Sorry, but I think you are indeed being a little obtuse. "the English language", and the OED's recording of it, encompasses all use of the English language, not just the use in the UK, Americas and Australia. A person who grew up in Hong Kong speaking English **IS** a "native English speaker". Recording "add oil" as a common usage by millions, or even hundreds of thousands of users in Asia is no different than recording "hoagie" as a common usage in the area surrounding Philadelphia PA.

    I looked online but could not find exactly how the OED is citing "add oil". I expect it clearly discusses where this is commonly used, and is not a prescriptive entry telling everyone to start saying this.

  3. KeithB said,

    October 19, 2018 @ 9:04 am

    Don't forget "pour on the coals", which is almost an exact analog to "add oil".

  4. ===Dan said,

    October 19, 2018 @ 2:03 pm

    (A few months ago I found OED offering an annual subscription at a discount, so I signed up. It shows up as the first "Phrase" under the entry for "add.")

    orig. and chiefly Hong Kong English. add oil!: expressing encouragement, incitement, or support: go on! go for it!
    [After Chinese (Cantonese) gā yáu, with reference to petrol being injected into an engine ( < gā to add + yáu petrol, variant (with tonal modification) of yàuh oil of any kind), and the corresponding Mandarin jiāyóu.]

    In quots. 1964 and 1980, a contextually supplied translation of the Chinese phrase (in the latter example, also serving as the article's title).
    [1964 Li Shu-Fan Hong Kong Surgeon iii. xi. 187 At frequent intervals he would say jokingly to his assistant next to him, ‘Ka Yow!’ ‘Ka Yow!’ meaning ‘Add oil! Add oil!’
    1980 Straits Times (Singapore) 25 July 36/1 ‘Add oil’… The children cheered themselves hoarse, shouting ‘Jia Yu’ (Mandarin for ‘Add Oil’) to their team members.]
    2005 South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) (Nexis) 1 Nov. 2 Some children..started chanting: ‘Macau team, add oil!’
    2016 China Daily (Hong Kong ed.) (Nexis) 7 June If we really are serious about being Asia's World City, we still have a lot of work to do. So add oil, everyone!

  5. Robert said,

    October 21, 2018 @ 6:50 am

    I agree it's not a question of whether or not we need the expression (entirely prescriptive), but I remain entirely unconvinced that the expression has serious currency in English at least in calque form. I note that the OED has no definitions for "myriad years!", "quick-quick!" or "holy blue!".

  6. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    October 22, 2018 @ 8:29 am

    Seems as though you (yinz / youse / y'all / you guys / *ye) had answered my initial question, but Robert opened it back up again. Does "the expression ha[ve] serious currency in English [even] in calque form"? Is there a "threshold" number of times an expression has to appear in print before it hits the OED, or is the characterization of a re-borrowed calque as "English" a matter of editorial discretion? What should we expect from an international dictionary of English insofar as its usefulness as a descriptive language tool is concerned?

  7. ktschwarz said,

    October 24, 2018 @ 2:40 am

    According to the OED's FAQ:

    The OED requires several independent examples of the word being used, and also evidence that the word has been in use for a reasonable amount of time. The exact time-span and number of examples may vary … We also look for the word to reach a level of general currency where it is unselfconsciously used with the expectation of being understood: that is, we look for examples of uses of a word that are not immediately followed by an explanation of its meaning for the benefit of the reader.

    So, basically, discretion. The important point here is that Hong Kong English is part of the OED's scope. It doesn't matter if the word hasn't crossed over to British English or American English. Some relevant articles on the OED's blog: their efforts to improve coverage of World Englishes (Philippine, Singapore, Indian, …); the appeal in 2016 for "add oil".

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