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South African words in English – then and now (part 3)

The month of South African English is slowly coming to an end. This is the third and final blog from Jean Branford, a world authority on the English of South Africa and author of A Dictionary of South African English.


In South Africa, too many social and political changes to enumerate have taken place between my teens under British colonial rule, and my late seventies under the spell of the World Cup. Not the least of these is in attitudes to and use of South African words in English. Obviously this has not happened overnight, but most aspects of everyday life have their own distinctively South African vocabulary.

South African names for many things have always been with us: not only the names of our ‘birds, beasts, bushes, bugs and fish’ mentioned before, but many hundreds of others if one’s ears and mind are open to them. Right now we are having an influx of new items exploding with the World Cup, which we are even hearing in the British TV news. I see for example that that thousands of vuvuzelas have been sold at Sainsbury’s in the UK, the diski dance is seen with the makarabas [hard hats with wings], and references to the wakawaka song, the Mother City [Cape Town], and braais [barbecues] have simply moved into place in the language. One Sky News presenter has just recommended ‘a boerewors roll and a bit of biltong’ [a hotdog made with local sausage, and some dried meat] for revellers in search of a bar before the game. Here in SA there has recently been a surge in South Africanness, which currently dominates advertising and TV, much of it featuring exaggerated and not always convincing SA accents.

This ‘Proudly South African’ enthusiasm may turn out to be a flash in the pan, but South African words from many languages have long been part of many aspects of our life. These include names for articles of clothing, such as doek [a headscarf] or velskoen [rough hide shoes]; for vehicles, such as bakkie [a pickup truck], a canopy [a hood to convert it to a covered carrier], a sail [a tarpaulin to cover its load], or a chor or skorokoro [a beat-up old car]; for buildings and furniture, such as stoep [a covered verandah], bankie [a stool], and of course the spens [pantry] and what is in it. Your supermarket till slip could show a pocket [an old measure] of oranges, bringal [aubergine], sosaties [skewered meat kebabs], braaiwors [sausage for the barbecue], beskuit [oven dried rusks], or even a vat of wine [in fact a cardboard ‘box wine’ container]. Indian foods and spices have long been with us, but these names will be familiar to British (as well as Indian) readers. Just as widely known are the names of African foods and drinks such as amasi [thick sour milk], maheu [fermented porridge], mabela meal [ground sorghum] and mmomela [sprouted grain for brewing beer].

One of the earliest ‘South African’ words known to the outside word was boer [Dutch for ‘farmer’]. South Africa has always been a farming country, and the vocabulary reflects this. A plaas [farm] may be simply a tract of land without a homestead, outbuildings, fencing or other ‘improvements’ such as pans [a hollow that fills with water when it rains], dams, or natural fountains [springs], in a place where water is an often overwhelming problem. So the farmer will often have to start from scratch, and he may have to ‘lead water’ through furrows [man-made water courses] to his lands [cultivated fields]. The livestock farmer, who is said to farm with [from Dutch ‘boer met’] cattle, sheep, or goats, may have to camp off his land [fence it off] into grazing camps [paddocks] and even sink a borehole [drill for an underground well]. If the land is too rugged even for grazing it may be written off as baboon rock. And the farmer may well wait long and pray hard for rain.

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Jean Branford


  • Great article from Jean Branford. I put together a mini guide to South Africanisms (well, a Top 10 list) for World Cup visitors to South Africa when, after reading one of my recent posts, a British reader wanted to know if “vuvuzela” was “an obscure gynaecological condition”. Of course, this was just before the World Cup started – I think everyone knows what vuvuzelas are by now.

  • Jean Branford – interesting as ever! Nice to see her still posting information on her favourite subject.

  • Fascinating stuff! I’m a close working colleague of Penny Roberts (nee Branford) and share your interest in words, phrases and their origins. Aside from a well-known few (boer, biltong, etc) most of the SA-specific language you shared was new to me. Thanks for the enlightenment! 🙂

  • How wonderful to find your blog Jean! It has been so many years! All those lekker South Africa phrases make me homesick. We are coming back for a visit this Christmas and look forward to familiarizing ourselves with the vernacular again! Grail:)

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