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March 29, 2008

Test Your Singlish

Posted by John Baez

Singlish is a creole language based on English, Malay, Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Tamil and various other languages. I didn’t hear much Singlish during my recent visit to the Singapore, but I found a nice book about it in Kinokuniya, which is conceivably the world’s best bookstore chain.

There’s a lot of wit in some Singlish expressions, and I hope they catch on elsewhere in the English-speaking world. Try guessing what these mean:

  • action (verb)
  • arrow (verb)
  • blur (adjective)
  • catch no ball (verb)
  • havoc (adjective)
  • stylo mylo (adjective)
  • Z-monster (noun)

(Of course you can resort to various online Singlish dictionaries, but that’s cheating.)

Above I’ve only included items that a clever English speaker might guess the meaning of. Here’s another, just to give you the flavor:

  • fly aeroplane (verb) — A term used to describe a disappearing act. Often used when one has been stood up. Examples: “You were supposed to fetch me to the job interview by ten o’clock and where? You fly aeroplane and then I miss my appointment!” “Why you fly aeroplane so late, now I cannot chope a lift home.”

There’s also a lot of Singlish of non-English origin that deserves to catch on more widely. For example:

  • kiasu (adjective) — Afraid to lose out to others. Always wanting the upper hand or something for free. Example: “Look at him so kiasu pushing people away to get a seat on the bus.”
  • punchan (verb) — Reprieve. To give someone a second chance or a small advantage. Example: “Okay your work not finish today lah, can punchan you. Tomorrow must finish.”

I got all this stuff from An Essential Guide to Singlish.

Does anyone here know Singlish?

Posted at March 29, 2008 1:37 AM UTC

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12 Comments & 0 Trackbacks

Re: Test Your Singlish

I missed your talk at NUS as I was teaching, lah ;-)

My favourite Singlish verb is “to merlion”, and it pretty much sums up my general impressions of this island after a couple of years…

Posted by: Dima Pasechnik on March 29, 2008 9:13 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Test Your Singlish

I know what that verb means. That’s too bad.

I like Singapore and hope to spend more time there. I’ve spent a summer in Hong Kong and a summer in Shanghai, and Singapore seems easier for an stupidly monolingual Anglophone like me to navigate. I might feel claustrophobic if I were stuck there 365 days a year… but I also feel claustrophobic stuck here in Riverside, which is why I enjoy traveling. I also feel that Singapore is a nation on its way up, while the USA is a nation on its way down.

Posted by: John Baez on March 30, 2008 9:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Test Your Singlish

  • action (verb) - “X actioned Y” - to bring up some scandal in Y’s past.
  • arrow (verb) - to misdirect somebody on what train to take.
  • blur (adjective) - a) the state of being really drunk - “Ho was blurred”. b) going really fast or seeming to - “The train blurred”, “after his last hit of Meth he twitched and blurred a lot”.
  • catch no ball (verb) - an incompetent subordinate.
  • havoc (adjective) - a non demure female companion
  • stylo mylo (adjective) - denotes a man who acts like he is wearing mylar underwear - metal coated plastic film. We all know what heat buildups such heat buildup can cause.
  • Z-monster (noun) - somebody that likes to sleep a lot and catch his/her Zs.
Posted by: RodMcGuire on March 29, 2008 9:44 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Test Your Singlish

Great guesses, Rod! Lots of fun!

I’ll reveal the answer to the one where you came closest to the truth:

  • blur (adjective) - a) the state of being really drunk - “Ho was blurred”. b) going really fast or seeming to - “The train blurred”, “after his last hit of Meth he twitched and blurred a lot”.

Definition a) is pretty close — but you didn’t seem to believe that Singlish really uses ‘blur’ as an adjective! It’s true! It’s weird, but it’s charming:

  • blur (adjective) — Confused, oblivious, spaced out.

    Example: “Five times I show you the way to my house and still you cannot find it. Why so blur?”

    Example: “He so blur like sotong. Cannot understand the question, cannot give the answer.”

‘Sotong’ is the Malay word for a squid, whose ink clouds the water. Apparently ‘so blur like sotong’ is a standard expression.

Posted by: John Baez on March 30, 2008 3:52 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Test Your Singlish

My wife is Singaporean so I’ve spent quite a bit of time there.

I’ve gone from being completely lost in conversations to having a vague idea about what our friends are talking about.

Knowing a few key words is one thing, being able to follow a fast paced Singaporean conversation is another!

Posted by: Richard on March 29, 2008 2:04 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Test Your Singlish

I’m Singaporean but currently doing my computer science PhD in France. Singlish is not encouraged by the Singapore government as Singaporean students might have trouble separating Singlish and common English comprehensible to non Singaporeans. However, I personally feel that given Singapore’s history, it is one of the very few things that gives a Singaporean his identity and should be somehow preserved.

There’s a website with a lot more Singlish at http://www.talkingcock.com . There’s even a Coxford Singlish Dictionary!

Posted by: Christopher Tay on March 30, 2008 6:24 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Test Your Singlish

Okay, I’ll give another one away:

  • action (verb) — To show off. Example: “See that girl always like to action. Always dancing on top of the bar at Carnegie’s so everyone looking!”

In case you’re wondering, a ban on table-top dancing in bars was dropped in some districts of Singapore on August 1, 2003.

Does anyone here know about Carnegie’s? I never heard of it. Not that I countenance table-top dancing, mind you.

Posted by: John Baez on April 4, 2008 8:17 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Test Your Singlish

Okay, here’s another one:

  • arrow (verb) — To charge with an unwanted task. Example: “Today I leave work early, otherwise I get arrowed to write statistics report for my boss.”
Posted by: John Baez on April 7, 2008 6:09 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Test Your Singlish

Actually that is not all that far off from my guess. The true gloss might be “directed to something undesirable” while mine could be glossed as “(intentionally mis-)directed to something undesirable”. However the real meaning may combine notions of “to task” while mine involved notions of “to fool”.

Posted by: RodMcGuire on April 7, 2008 6:12 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Test Your Singlish

Yes, you were pretty close! More importantly still, you were the only one with the guts to make some guesses.

Posted by: John Baez on April 7, 2008 10:54 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Test Your Singlish

I’m going to Shanghai for 18 days starting tonight, and I don’t think I’ll bring my guide to Singlish with me, so I’ll give away another one while it’s easy. I really like this one:

  • Catch no ball (verb) — To fail to understand. Examples: “Don’t talk so much about technology, I catch no ball, just give me auto focus camera!” “Eh how many timea I tell you? He cannot speak Chinese, you talk and talk but he catch no ball.”
Posted by: John Baez on April 7, 2008 10:59 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Test Your Singlish

I don’t know about stylo-mylo, seems like it is originated from Malaysia, so is it malaysian english?

Posted by: Art of Approaching Review on November 14, 2010 1:36 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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