South Africanisms everyone should know

Updated Tuesday, 4 December 2018

With 11 official languages, it is no wonder that there is a lingo in South Africa that is completely unique to this diverse country of colours, tongues and cultures. While English is widely spoken and understood, visitors are encouraged to learn some of the local words, which hail from a combination of English, Afrikaans and the many African languages found here.

Here are some of the most significant South Africanisms …

Ag (a-ch) – an exclamation that is best compared to “argh” in its application. It is widely used as a sentence filler. For example, “Ag, I’m fine, thank you”.

Amasi (a-mar-si) – a traditional drink with soured milk as its base. It is often enjoyed on its own, or over maize meal.

Aweh (aah-weh) – this can be used as a greeting or to express excitement.

Babbelas (bub-a-luss) – a severe hangover.

Bakkie (buck-ee) – a local name for a pick-up truck.

Biltong – a dried, spiced meat that is similar to the American jerky. This is enjoyed as a protein-rich snack and can be made with beef or game.


Bra or bru – an endearing term for a friend, usually used by men.

Braai (bruy) – a barbecue, which is a very common way to eat and entertain in South Africa.

Bredie (bree-dee) – a mutton stew with its origins in the Malay folk that were moved here centuries ago for the purposes of slavery.

Chommie – a friend or pal.

Dassie (duss-ee) – these are known as rock rabbits or hyraxes in other parts of the world and can be seen all over the country.

Dop (dawp) – any alcoholic beverage, a term used in an informal setting.

Dwaal – refers to wondering around aimlessly or being completely distracted.

Eish (aysh) – an expression used to verbalise surprise, shock or even resignation. For example, “Eish, I have a bad babbelas!”

Eina (ay-nah) – a common replacement for “ouch!”

Dassie on Table Mountain

Fundi (foon-dy) – a pro or expert in any given field.

Gogga or goggo – this refers to any insect. Both of the “g” sounds are pronounced with a guttural sound like the “ch” in loch.

Howzit – a very common greeting in South Africa; reserved for informal and friendly occasions. It is a contraction of “how is it?” and should not be used in any kind of formal setting.

Hayibo (hi-yi-boh) – usually said in disbelief as an exclamation.

Isit (iz-it) – used in the same context as “oh really, is that so?” this is an informal exclamation of surprise, that is sometimes used playfully when teasing someone.

Jislaaik (yiss-like) – an expression of shock or horror.

Jol (jorl) – a big party or lots of fun.

Kif – used to describe anything good, great or exciting.

Koeksister (cook-sister) – sweet dough that is deep-friend and dipped into cold syrup. The Afrikaans folk often freeze them and eat them ice-cold, but they are delicious hot and fresh too.


Lekker (lacker) – nice, wonderful, delicious, cool or fun.

Mampoer (mum-poor) – a very strong fruit-based brandy that should only be consumed in very small quantities due to its high alcohol content.

Muti (moo-ti) – this refers to traditional African medicine, made from herbs and other natural ingredients and sometimes associated with witchcraft.

Now-now – although English, this has quite a different meaning in South Africa. It is a reference to a period of time that is not defined. It could mean soon or within a few hours.

Robot – South Africans commonly refer to traffic lights as robots, causing quite some confusion amongst visitors, understandably.

Shebeen – a tavern in the informal settlements or townships, frequented by locals and very vibrant.

Skelm (ske-lim) or skabenga – these words refer to criminals or unsavoury types that should be avoided.

Ubuntu (oo-boon-too) – a term that is widely known for representing the natural sense of love and community that promotes caring for others, whether you know them or not.

Yebo (yeah-boh) – meaning “yes”.


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