South African additions to the OED

South African additions to the OED

South Africa is known as the Rainbow Nation, a name that celebrates the modern country’s acceptance of and pride in its multi-ethnic and multicultural identity. This diversity of cultures, traditions, and languages is reflected in the varied and vibrant lexicon of South African English, and throughout the years, the Oxford English Dictionary has documented over a thousand words and senses of South African origin. Several new words have been added to this long list in the dictionary’s latest update.

Many of the OED’s new South African additions have been borrowed into English from some of the most widely spoken languages in the country. Afrikaans is a particularly rich source for such loanwords, lending two of the oldest words in this batch. Deurmekaar, first attested in 1871, is an adjective applied to something that is confused, muddled, or mixed up. The adverb voetstoots was first used in English in 1883 as a legal term describing the buying or selling of items in their existing condition, but nearly a hundred years later, it also began to be used more generally to describe actions carried out unconditionally, without reservation or qualification.

Later borrowings from Afrikaans were first seen in English in the early to mid twentieth century. They include eina, an interjection expressing sharp pain or distress, and dwaal, a noun referring to a dreamy, dazed, or absent-minded state, frequently used in the phrase in a dwaal.

Other words in this update have their roots in two other official languages of South Africa—Xhosa and Zulu. The oldest of these loanwords date to the late nineteenth century: amakhosi (1857), a collective term of Xhosa and Zulu origin for tribal leaders or chiefs in traditional Nguni societies, and ubuntu (1860), a word signifying the fundamental values of humanity or of Africanness, also borrowed partly from Xhosa and partly from Zulu. Ingcibi, first used in English in 1937, is a Xhosa word for a person who performs circumcisions on young men as part of a traditional rite of passage, while the more contemporary borrowing Mzansi, dating from 1999, is from the Xhosa name for South Africa, also meaning South Africans as a people.

People image

A Bantu language is the probable source of toyi-toyi, the name of a dance-like movement usually performed with chanting or singing during marches or rallies. This form of protest apparently started among predominantly black activists during the anti-apartheid demonstrations of the 1980s, based on the physical training exercises of guerrilla camps.

Beyond borrowings, South Africa is also represented in this latest update by uniquely South African uses and combinations of English words, all of which entered the language in the latter half of the twentieth century. Despite its name, bunny chow is not rabbit food, but a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with curry, a popular takeaway dish among South Africans. A spaza shop is a small, unlicensed shop in a township, usually one run from a person’s house.

South Africa’s long wine-growing tradition has given rise to the term Wine of Origin (abbreviated W.O.), which is used to designate wines that are officially certified as originating from a recognized region or estate and guaranteed as being of the specified vintage and grape variety.

In South Africa, a sandwich is a sarmie; a casual greeting of ‘how’s it going?’ is shortened to ‘howzit?’; and a non-committal, resigned, or ironic ‘whatever’ is expressed as ‘ja well no fine’, pronounced quickly, almost as one word. South Africans call an old, dilapidated car a skedonk, probably in imitation of the bangs and splutters such a car makes; and they describe anything that they consider cool as kifa word that can be traced back to kaif, an Arabic word meaning ‘enjoyment’ or ‘pleasure’ which was later colloquially used in English to refer to a feeling of dreamy intoxication, as well as to the mind-altering substances that cause such feelings.

This selection of words has been added to the OED as part of the dictionary’s continuing efforts to record the South African lexicon, and future updates will include even more colourful additions from the Rainbow Nation.

Here you can find a list of the new South African words and senses added to the OED in the December 2018 update:


amakhosi, n.

bunny chow, n.

deurmekaar, adj.

district surgeon, n.

dwaal, n.

eina, int. and n.

gumboot dance, n.

howzit, int.

ingcibi, n.

ja, adv.

ja well no fine, phr.

kasi, n. and adj.

kif, adj.

Mzansi, n.

sakkie-sakkie, adj. and n.

sarmie, n.

shackland, n.

skedonk, n.

spaza, n.

tickey box, n.

toyi-toyi, n.

toyi-toyi, v.

traditional healer, n.

ubuntu, n.

voetstoots, adv. and adj.

Wine of Origin, n.


The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.