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A Dictionary of Singlish
and Singapore English
|Tell me how much a nation knows about it
language, and I will tell you how much that
nation knows about its own identity.
— John Ciardi
PEOPLE who know me will tell you that I don’t really speak Singlish and should never try to do so because it sounds odd coming out of my mouth. I grew up in a home where Singlish was scarcely used. It was only during National Service from 1988 to 1991 that I first encountered a profusion of Singlish.
Ms Doris Mak Pou Kuen, the Chief Clerk of the G4 Branch, HQ 3rd Division, where I was posted to, deserves special mention. A diminutive person with a ferocious temper, she was a consummate linguist who peppered her speech with colourful words and phrases. For instance, her response to an untidy office was the complaint “Why is the things all senget?”, and frustration provoked the use of the expletive “Ji dan!” (The latter is the Mandarin word for egg ~ I suspect it was her euphemism for a Hokkien expression regarded as extremely vulgar that appears in this Dictionary.) Of course, I didn’t grasp a large number of the expressions that she and other Army colleagues used. And so I started collecting them, writing them down and finding out what they meant.
There have been several previous efforts to compile lexicons of Singlish, some for scholarly purposes, most for entertainment. This Dictionary differs from them in that it attempts, as the Oxford English Dictionary does, to record actual usage in published material. In this respect the Singapore newspapers, particularly their lifestyle sections, have been a remarkably rich source. It is my hope that, someday, a proper reading programme will enable each word and phrase to be traced to its first appearance in a published work, transforming this Dictionary into one truly organized according to historical principles. I have also tried to provide the etymology of the entries, but am handicapped in this regard by my lack of facility in other languages. Again, other more qualified persons will need to take on this task.
Singlish has had a bad rap in recent years. Its use in locally-produced television programmes such as the sitcom Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd was criticized as likely to affect the standard of English among the impressionable, and measures such as the Speak Good English Campaign have discouraged its use. I agree wholeheartedly that everyone should develop a competent command of proper English for use in business and official circles. At the same time, Singlish is economical, expressive and emotional. It is something home-grown that reflects Singaporeans’ multi-racial roots. It is how we talk to our families, our friends, the people that live with us on this Little Red Dot whom we come into contact with. Allowing it to wither away would be a real shame.
Jack Tsen-Ta Lee
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As of 9 August 2012, the Dictionary had 1,230 headwords in it (if I counted correctly). Headwords are the words, phrases and terms that appear in bold. The figure includes cross-references to other headwords.
According to StatCounter.com, in October 2008 there were 2,212 unique visitors to the Dictionary. Between January 2007 and 6 November 2008, there were altogether 39,574 visitors; of these, 18,761 were unique visitors.
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In general, the format of The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary has been followed with some modifications. Each entry has the following format:
/pronunciation/ part of speech [etymology] subject or
status label. Variant spellings.
[derivative word, compound or
phrase /pronunciation/ part of speech [etymology]
subject or status label. Variant spellings.
This Dictionary contains words and phrases found in non-standard English as it is used in Singapore that do not appear in The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary, or that have meanings different from standard English words and phrases. These may be foreign words and phrases that have gained currency in Singapore English, or unique words and phrases that may or may not be based on foreign words and phrases. Mere mispronunciations of standard English words and phrases (eg., gahmen for government) are not included.
Entries are arranged alphabetically, with upper- and lower-case letters regarded as equivalent. Entries with hyphens and spaces follow otherwise identical words that are written solid. Variant entries follow full entries.
The spelling of entries is challenging as in many cases there is no standardized way of transliterating words from certain languages such as Chinese dialects into English. In general, the following principles are applied:
Entries are spelled in the manner in which they commonly appear in print. This is usually the manner in which they are set out in quotations, but not invariably so as some quotations spell entries in idiosyncratic ways.
Entries from Romanized languages other than English, such as Malay, are spelled according to those languages. Entries from Mandarin have been rendered in the 汉语拼音 Hànyŭ Pīnyīn system of transliteration.
Entries are spelled in the manner that best represents their pronunciation unambiguously.
If a word has more than one spelling, the spelling used for the headword is usually regarded as the dominant or preferred spelling. Other spellings may be given later in the entry as variants. Words or phrases that are still regarded as essentially foreign are set out in italics. Obsolete headwords, that is, those no longer in current use, are preceded with a dagger symbol (†).
Two pronunciation guides are used in the Dictionary. Full lists of the pronunciation symbols used appear at the bottom of the main screen.
Black’s Law Dictionary ~ the first pronunciation
guide that appears after each headword is adapted from Bryan A Garner (ed.),
Black’s Law Dictionary (7th ed.) (St Paul, Minn.: West Group, 1999). As
Black’s pronunciation guide
can be represented by letters and symbols that can be typed using an ordinary
computer keyboard, all users should be able to read it. The primary stress
in a word is indicated by the use of boldface font.
International Phonetic Alphabet ~ the second pronunciation guide that appears after the first uses the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The IPA employs many special characters that are not available in standard character sets. The IPA pronunciation guide in the Dictionary uses the TITUS cyberbit basic font on your computer. This is a Unicode font designed by Bitstream Inc. and TITUS (Thesaurus Indogermanischer Text- und Sprachmaterialien), a project based at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. If you do not install this font on your computer you will not be able to view the IPA pronuncation guide properly.
Optional sounds are enclosed in parentheses.
If a word or phrase is adopted from another language, the original language is specified. If the original word or phrase differs from the spelling of the headword, the form of that word or phrase in the foreign language is set out. A half-parenthesis may be used to exclude part of a word that is not represented in a headword.
Foreign scripts are used in the etymologies (and definitions) of certain headwords; for instance, Arabic script is used to render terms in Arabic and Persian, Chinese script to render Mandarin terms, Devanāgarī to render Hindi and Sanskrit terms, and Gurmukhī to render Punjabi terms. To view such scripts properly, you need to have the international support feature of Windows XP/Server 2003 enabled. This may be done by following these instructions:
Launch Control Panel.
Click on ‘Date, Time, Language and Regional Options’.
Click on ‘Regional and Language Options’.
Select the ‘Languages Tab’.
In the ‘Supplemental Language Support’ part of the window, tick the two check boxes beside the options ‘Install files for complex script and right-to-left languages (including Thai)’ and ‘Install files for East Asian Languages’.
Click ‘OK’. You will be prompted to insert your Windows CD-ROM or point to a location on your hard disk or network where the required files are located so that they can be installed on your hard disk.
When the installation process is complete, you will need to restart your computer.
For more information, visit the Microsoft website.
If you are seeing squares instead of characters in some of the etymologies, to view the missing characters you need to install the TITUS cyberbit basic font on your computer.
Click here to download the TITUS cyberbit basic font
Subject or status labels set out in italics after may be included to indicate the style or register of language (eg., colloq. or slang), a particular field of knowledge or usage (eg., mil.), or the frequency or extent of use (eg., rare). Other labels in italics may be used in definitions to link or clarify the relationship between (parts of) definitions (eg., esp., fig., gen., spec., transf.).
Symbols used in the Dictionary are set out below:
|Before a word or sense|
|After a label ‘Obs.’ or ‘rare’|
|indicates a word or sense for which no contextual examples from printed sources were available to the editors|
|indicates a word or sense for which only one contextual example from a printed source was available to the editors|
|In an etymology|
|*||indicates a word or form not actually found, but of which the existence is inferred|
|>||developed into or borrowed as|
|Before a date|
|?||indicates an uncertain date|
|In a quotation|
|..||within cited text, this indicates an omitted part of a quotation|
|[ ]||within cited text, this surrounds an editorial insertion; if placed around an entire quotation, this indicates that the quotation does not illustrate the use of the headword but provides information about its etymology.|
Variant spellings are generally preceded by ‘Also‘, or sometimes ‘Orig.’
Definitions are divided as follows:
A, B, etc. ~ parts of speech. For a word or phrase that exists as more than one part of speech, the definitions are arranged in the following order of precedence: nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, interjections, prefixes or combined forms, suffixes.
I, II, etc. ~ major grammatical or semantic divisions of the same part of speech.
1, 2, etc. ~ basic meanings of the same part of speech.
a, b, etc. ~ related sub-senses within a sense.
(a), (b), etc. ~ minor divisions in a main sense; senses of phrases, derivatives, sub-entries.
Where one word, sense or phrase is equivalent to another, an equal sign (=) precedes the equivalent word, sense or phrase. Cross-references in definitions are set out in small capitals.
Notes provide additional information of relevance or interest which does not fit obviously into the normal entry structure. They can be on a range of subjects, including dating, pronunciation, etymology and usage. Notes are preceded by a paragraph symbol (¶).
Derivative words, compounds and phrases are set out after the definition and quotation(s) of headwords.
Derivatives are formed by adding a suffix (eg., –able, –ly, –ness)
to a headword. They may be left undefined if their meaning is readily
deducible from the definition of the headword. Derivatives that are
synonyms of the headword are preceded by ‘Also’.
Compound words consist of the headword and another word. Compound words commonly consist of two nouns, but can also be made up of a noun and an adjective, a verb and a noun object or adverb, or an adjective and another part of speech. Compound words are indicated by the following abbreviations:
If the first part of the definition of a compound word repeats the definition of the headword, this part of the definition may be substituted with a colon. Separate senses are divided by (a), (b), etc.
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|lit. and fig.||
in literal and figurative use, literally and figuratively
|ppl. a.||participial adjective|
representative (of), represented, representing, represent
expressing, expressive of
translation of, translating
from the same (initial or principal) word as
in figurative use, figuratively