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10 South Africanisms foreigners may not understand

By Bidvest Bank
22-09-2017
South Africans are a unique bunch, which is probably most evident in our decidedly quirky “South Africanisms” – those phrases and slang words that we use every day, but that you probably won’t hear anywhere else in the world. Originating from a mix of English along with our 10 other official languages, these phrases are colourful, descriptive, and sometimes downright funny. While this is all good and well if you’re in the country, you may find you have problems being understood if you use them while travelling abroad. Here are 10 of these phrases that come to mind:  

1. “Turn left at the robot”: If you say this outside of South Africa, people may think you’re talking about an actual robot with arms and legs that can talk and respond, instead of a stationary traffic light that simply flashes red, orange or green.

2. “Just now”: Taken literally, this phrase means “immediately”, but to South Africans, it sits in a grey area: it doesn’t quite mean right now, but it doesn’t mean too far from now either. Confused yet? If you’re South African you’ve probably never stopped to think about its literal meaning (which is probably just as well) – but it’ll pay to be clearer when using it to a foreigner, otherwise you may come across as rude by unwittingly keeping them waiting! 

3. “Pants”: While in South Africa (and other countries such as the USA) this word means trousers, in countries like the UK, it actually means “underpants”. No need to explain the potential embarrassment here.  

4. “Ag shame man”: While people in other countries may say “It’s a shame”, the South African version is used in a slightly different way. Here, it’s a much more empathetic, endearing and even admiring turn of phrase, as in, “Ag shame man, that puppy is so cute”. 

5. “Is it?”: Of course, we know this means “Really?” or “Is that so?”, but our accent may make it sound like we’re saying something entirely different. While we all use it as a basic conversational response to almost anything, it may result in some strange looks heading your way from foreigners. 

6. “He’s a real fundi”: You probably didn’t know that the word “fundi” is actually specifically South African, originating from the Nguni word umfundi meaning “learner”. So, if you’re talking about someone being an expert or enthusiast about a particular subject, you may need to use another description instead. 

7. “Sharp”: You’ll probably have to explain to a non-South African that no, this doesn’t mean you’re about to walk over a sharp piece of glass, but rather that everything is OK, perfect or great. For extra emphasis, you may want to double up to “Sharp-sharp!”, but that may confuse things even more. 

8. “Sho’t left”: The phrase originates from South African taxi lingo, where a taxi commuter wanting a short ride to a destination nearby may say, “Sho’t left, please driver”. To avoid getting lost, it’s wise to explain your desired destination more precisely the next time you’re in a taxi overseas. 

9. “Ja nee”: Literally translated as “yes-no”, this phrase is the perfect combination to express a sentiment that can roughly be translated as, “neither here nor there”. Even if a foreigner understands the “ja” part, the “nee” may be more difficult for them, but even if they understand that, they’ll still want to know: are you saying yes or no? 

10. “Howzit”: All South Africans will know that this is a friendly “hello” greeting, but a foreigner may think you literally want to know “how it is” – and in that case, what does “it” refer to? 

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