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The Coxford Singlish Dictionary

by Kenneth Lyen

The Coxford Singlish Dictionary may not be as big or as well-known as The Oxford English Dictionary, but to Singaporeans, it is probably the most authoritative dictionary of Singapore English (Singlish). Like the Oxford English Dictionary, it depends on the tireless contributions of myriads of volunteers who comb through Singapore in search of this peculiar deviation, or as some unkind person once remarked, pollution of the Queen’s English. Singlish is actually an amalgamation of English and a local dialect (Hokkien, Cantonese, Malay or Indian).

Simon Winchester, in his book about the making of The Oxford English Dictionary, The Meaning of Everything, remarked that the difference between this dictionary and other European dictionaries of the same era, is that it is not prescriptive but rather descriptive. The Oxford English Dictionary is not a rulebook to restrict English to be used "correctly". Rather, it is like a photograph of the English words as they have been used throughout the ages. Hence it does not ossify the English language and allow it to be buried in the geological sediments of fossilised languages. Instead it allows English to live, to breathe, and to fatten itself by consuming words from other countries and from new technologies.

Sadly, Singlish has been sounded the death knell by the Singapore Government. It has been outlawed from all official publications and broadcasting. Writers, filmmakers and teachers are discouraged from using it. Hence given time and a poisoned attitude, it will die an unnatural death.

But before it goes into its terminal convulsions, let me tell about some unique Singlish words, which I find hard to translate into any other language. They include:

CHEEM: Hokkien term meaning something is profound or deep or intellectual.
"You study philosophy? Wah lao, damn cheem, man!" [Actually the term "cheem" is used with an admiring yet simultaneously condescending attitude.]

CHEEMINOLOGY: A hybrid English-Hokkien word meaning that something is written in an intellectual or bombastic fashion, such that it is completely incomprehensible.
"Eh, when you write essay that time, can cut down on the cheeminology or not?"

KENA: A Malay term which denotes that something has happened. Closest English approximation is "to get".
1. "He kena scolded by the teacher." (He was scolded by the teacher.)
2. "He kena whack by Ah Beng." (He got hit by Ah Beng.)

KENA SAI: A happy marriage of Malay and Chinese meaning to get into trouble. Literally, "got hit by shit.""He didn't do his homework, so kena sai from the teacher." [I love this phrase! I can smell and feel the shit!]

KIASU (kee-ah-soo): Hokkien adjective literally meaning, "afraid of losing". A highly pejorative description beloved of Singaporeans. Possibly our defining national characteristic. The nearest English equivalent is "dog in a manger", though even that is pretty mild.
"You went to get a handicapped sticker just to chope a parking space? How kiasu can you get?" [This word is now incorporated into one of the prestigious English dictionaries... I can’t remember which one, but obviously one that I would automatically rate as superior].

Malay for "love", it is used in most Singlish contexts in the same way as "what a pity".
"I see them throw away so much food, I always feel damn sayang like that." [Actually this word is used more frequently referring to the love of an adult for a young child, or as an indication of regret.]

Originally a Malay exclamation, but now a universal Singaporean expression denoting extreme pleasure or the highest quality.
1. "This char kway teow is damn shiok, man!"
2. "I ate the char kway teow until damn shiok." [I like this word because it is usually spoken by someone who is pretending to be a connoisseur trying to praise something but in so doing betrays the humble origins of that person.]

SIAN (see-en)
A wonderfully concise Hokkien adjective which conveys boredom, weariness, frustration and emptiness. The English equivalent would be "ennui".
1. "My job is damn sian, man."
2. "Wah lau eh, I do A-maths, do until sian oreddy." [It is slightly more than "ennui" in that there is a bit more of an irritation embedded in the word. It is like when you have absolutely nothing to do, but annoyed that you are trapped in such a situation.]

These are examples of a few of the many wonderful words in Singlish that cannot be captured by any other language. If language is a tool for communication, and Singlish can enhance that communication, as well as enriching the thoughts of Singaporeans, then it should be preserved rather than destroyed by our bureaucrats.

Please visit the Talking Cock website and support our endangered Singlish by purchasing a copy of the Coxford Singlish Dictionary:

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