Hearing the distinct flavor and phraseology of South African English is one of the great pleasures of visiting the country, but it may also leave you scratching your head. In addition to the unusual accent, you’ll find many unfamiliar words that have been “borrowed” from the country’s other languages. You may also find that English words you thought you knew the meaning of have been creatively “re-purposed.” (In fact, South Africa probably has as much colorful slang as Australia.) So to help first-time visitors communicate and get around with minimum hassle, here’s a glossary of common South African slang terms.
Bagel (bey-gull): Though this word can be used in the traditional culinary sense, it’s alternate meaning is as a semi-denigrating term for a young, spoiled, overly-pampered Jewish man. See also “kugel,” below.
Bakkie (buck-ee): This word sounds like it could have something to do with a rodeo, or perhaps a science-fiction movie. But it’s really the equivalent to a “ute” in Australia, or a pick-up truck in the USA and UK.
Boerewors: A tasty sausage made from ground beef or pork mixed with South African spices. It originated on rural Afrikaner farms, hence the name (boerewors literally means “farmer sausage” in Afrikaans). Typically formed into a big curled spiral, “boeries” are great food for a braai (see below).
Boma (bo-muh): This word is Bantu in origin, and traditionally referred to a wood-thatched structure used for holding livestock or provide protection. Also known by the Afrikaans name kraal, a boma is now used widely an an enclosure for dining or entertainment. If you stay at an upscale safari lodge, you’ll likely have a celebratory open-air dinner in a boma at some point.
Braai (bry): The South African term for barbecue, from Afrikaans. If you buy a piece of steak in the supermarket and the clerk asks if you want them to braai it for you, that means they will cook it up for you on the grill outside. Or if you get invited to a braai on a Sunday afternoon, be sure to bring some boerewors.
Bushveld (bush-felt): Huge tracts of northeastern South African countryside are considered bushveld, which is terrain characterized by dry, scrubby vegetation in dense clumps, with grassy ground cover between. It derives from the Afrikaans “bosveld” (literally “bush field”).
China: Yes, China is the world’s most populous country, but in South Africa it also means “good friend.” The origin is from Cockney rhyming slang: “China plate” = “mate” (if you don’t know what Cockney rhyming slang is, you’ll just have to Google it).
Durbs: Shorthand for Durban, the coastal city. Other South African cities are similarly abbreviated, most notably Johannesburg, which is know as Jozi, Joburg or Joeys.
Gogo (goh-goh): A grandmother or elderly woman, from the isiZulu language. As in, “Let’s bring some boerewors to gogo’s house in Durbs next weekend for the braai.”
Gogga (gah-guh): Not to be confused with gogo, a gogga is something creepy and crawly, usually some type of freaky insect. As in, “Did you see that gogga in gogo’s house? It was bigger than my hand.”
Howzit: In America we may say “What’s up” and in Australia they say “How you going?” But if you want to casually greet someone in South Africa, just say “Howzit?” It’s sort of a shorthand for “how is it with you?”
Just now: Contrary to its explicit meaning, “just now” in South African usage actually means “in a little while, at an indeterminate time in the future.” For example, if you ask your husband to wash the dishes and he says “I’ll do them just now,” don’t bank on it happening anytime soon.
Kugel (koo-gell, with a hard ‘g’): Jewish people of eastern European origin know this as a tasty baked casserole dish. But its “alternate” – and not so complimentary – South African meaning, is of vain, materialistic young Jewish woman. It’s sort of the South African equivalent to the “Jewish American Princess.” See also “bagel,” above.
Lekker (lek-urr): An all-purpose word for something you like. Can mean “nice,” “good,” “great,” “cool,” or “tasty!” For example, “That was a lekker braai at gogo’s last night.”
Nartjie (nar-chee): The melodious South African word for tangerine, which derives from a very old Afrikaans word.
Now-now: A measure of time that means shortly, or “in just a minute.” For example, if your friends are waiting for you at the movie theater and you’re just around the corner, call them from your mobile phone and tell them “I’ll be there now-now.”
Pap (pup): You’ll see and hear about this staple food everywhere you go in South Africa. Made from mealiemeal (maize meal), it’s a hot porridge that’s cooked with water and salt.
Robot: In the context of a sci-fi movie or an engineering lab, it’s the machine that performs human functions. In the context of driving, however, it’s a traffic light. (But don’t worry, it won’t try to control your brain.)
Shebeen (shuh-bean): Irish folks probably know this word already – in that country it refers to an illicit bar or club of days gone by. In the townships of South Africa it’s a casual tavern where home-brewed alcohol (and commercially-produced drinks as well) are served. In the past shebeens were mostly illegal and unlicensed, but now they are fully legal and are central to the social and cultural life of black South African communities.
Skinner: Your mother probably told you it’s not polite to do this, but it’s inevitable that you’re going to hear — or spread — some skinner. Gossip, that is (from Afrikaans). So when you’re at the shebeen, keep your trap shut or you’ll get a reputation as a “skinnerbek” (a person who gossips).
Takkies: In the UK you’d know them as “trainers,” and in the US we usually call them “sneakers.” Either way you look at it, they are athletic shoes. But if you’re talking about “fat takkies,” then you’re referring to extra-wide tires. (Or “tyres,” as it’s spelled in South Africa and the UK.)
Tom: Money. Equivalent to “dough” in the US, or “dosh” in the UK. Good to know when you’re about to share a taxi with your china, and he informs you he hasn’t got any tom.
Vuvuzela (voo-voo-zell-ah): This one was popularized during the 2010 World Cup. You may remember seeing TV footage of fans at football matches blowing into big plastic trumpets that emit an annoying foghorn-like sound. The word derives from the isiZulu term for “making noise”.
Windgat (vint-ghut): In Afrikaans it literally means “wind hole,” though the actual meaning is closer to “windbag.” It refers to a person who is a braggart and a blabbermouth.