There are many differences between the English used in Singapore and that found in Britain and the United States. Some of the features of Singapore English are similar to features in Mandarin Chinese. However other languages, such as Malay, also influence Singapore English. In many cases, it is likely that the influence for one feature has come from several different sources which serve to reinforce each other. It is useful to raise awareness of these features to help reduce confusion when Singaporeans communicate with other English speakers.
Here are 30 English words that have a slightly different meaning in Singapore. These words should be used with caution when travelling to English speaking countries.
A verb meaning to boast or show off. It can also mean arrogant and haughty. The word is wrongly used due to confusion of the Malay word “berlagak”, which can either mean “show off” or “to act”.
“He always likes to action in front of the ladies”
(“He always likes to show off in front of the ladies”)
“That fellow always like to action, walking around with his Rolex over his shirt sleeves.”
“You don’t talk so much, action only!”
Among the many noun definitions of action it is also a verb, and is defined as ‘to take action on or deal with’. e.g. “Your request will be actioned”. Or in other words your request will be dealt with.
So ironically the phrase “That fellow always likes to action” is actually a compliment; he gets things done!
2. Bath / Bathe
“Go and take your bath! Or “Go and bathe”. To mean go take a shower.
To have a bath or bathe in a bathtub.
Bird / Bird-bird / birdie / cuckoo bird. It’s a direct Singlish translation of the Malay and Chinese dialect slang words for penis.
Chinese: Ku Ku Jiao. Male genitalia (crude). Also “ku ku bird”.
Malay: Burung – literally ‘bird’; euphemism for ‘penis’.
A warm-blooded egg-laying vertebrate animal distinguished by the possession of feathers, wings, a beak, and typically by being able to fly.
In British slang it means a young woman, however some people find this word offensive. Examples:
“Is that Dave’s new bird?”
“Oi Pete, izzat your bird?”
Be very careful if you use ‘bird’ in the UK.
Used to describe someone as rather inept, feeling dazed or in a world of his own. A common usage is “Blur like sotong”. Other examples:
“Such a simple thing also cannot do. You damn blur!”
“Wah lao, I do maths, do until blur, man.”
A smear or stain that obscures: “The words were a blur”. Something moving or occurring too quickly to be clearly seen. Something remembered or perceived indistinctly, typically because it happened very fast: “The day before was a blur”.
If you accuse someone of being ‘blur’, they may just suggest that you buy glasses.
People use boring instead of bored. “I think you are boring”
To say someone is boring or you are boring has negative connotations regarding personality (uninteresting person).
A detached two or three story home.
A type of single-storey house
Refers to a stamp or seal, and to stamp a document. The word ‘chop’ was originally from the Malay word cap, which is from the Hindi word छाप ćhāp (stamp).
To cut something into pieces with repeated sharp blows of an axe or knife. It can also be a thick slice of meat, especially pork or lamb.
The use of the word ‘chop’ to mean ‘stamp’ is unique to this part of the world, so please be careful, business people in the West will be quite confused.
In Singapore Christians and Catholics are referred to as two different groups. This difference probably arises because the Mandarin phrase for Protestant is 基督教 (ji-du-jiao), which actually means Christian. Here is an example of this Singapore usage:
“The missionary school consisted mostly of Roman Catholics and Christians.”
There are two types of Christian: Protestants and Catholics. In other words, Christian is a cover term for the two branches of the church.
If you ask someone whether they are Christian and they answer ‘no’, it would be then redundant to ask if they are Catholic. In Western countries, a Catholic is a Christian.
Talk cock – to talk nonsense. Also a way to describe something as being nonsensical or sub-standard. It may have been derived from a combination of the English slang “cock and bull” and the Hokkien “kong lan-chiau oe”.
The use of ‘cock’ is actually fairly benign, even though it has obscene connotations. It’s like saying “rubbish” or “junk” in standard English.
“Don’t listen to him, he’s only talking cock.”
“Wah lau, you go and buy this cock thing for what?”
“Why you so cock, go and invest in that dot-com?”
The adult male of the domestic chicken, and other male birds.
Also a vulgar slang for penis.
British Tabloid Article “Don’t Talk Cock!’
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have banned the use of the word “cock” as applied to the male species, in case it causes offence. Read more
To accompany or go with someone. “You follow me” (which means “You can come along with me”)
The word ‘follow’ is based on 跟(gen1). 跟(gen1) means follow or to go with. The phrase 你(ni3)可(ke2)以(yi3)跟(gen1)着(zhe4)我(wo3) is [you can follow me] or [you can go with me]. Obviously there is confusion for the word ‘follow’, as this does mean to proceed behind. Therefore “you can go with me” or “you can come with me” should be used.
To go after someone, to proceed behind or to come after as in pursuit of.
If you said “I’ll follow you”, this would imply that you will walk behind them like a mad stalker.
Do something for someone else. “Can you help post these letters” (which means “Can you post these letters”)
Although grammatically correct, contextually this sounds like you need assistance or aid, rather than you need someone to do something for you.
The usage in Singapore is due to a direct translation of the Mandarin word 帮(bang1), which is used in a phrase such as: 你(ni3)可(ke2)以(yi3)帮(bang1)我(wo2)买(mai3) [You can help me buy] or [You can buy for me]. 帮(bang1) has two meanings; “for” and “help”. So it can mean to assist, however it can also mean one person doing something on behalf of another (“for”). The structure is exactly the same, but it should be translated as “can you buy FOR me”.
‘Help’ in this form is to give aid or assistance. “Could you help me carry this table.”
The casual phrase “can you help me buy…” or “can you help post these letters” would seem a little strange in native English speaking countries. This sounds like you need assistance or aid, rather than you need someone to do something for you.
If you asked someone to help you buy water, they would think you were unable to perform the task on your own and need assistance in simple shopping transactions.
12. (You know) how to eat?
Do you eat this kind of dish, and do you like to eat it?
Do you know the method or art of eating (e.g. open mouth, insert food, chew, and swallow)?
Put in order or tidy up. For example “Keep your books” (which means “put your books away”).
Another word related to the Chinese direct translation is ‘keep’. “Put in order” or “tidy up” in Mandarin is 收(shou1)起(qi3). The phrase 收(shou1)起(qi3)你(ni3)的(de4)书(shu1) is wrongly converted to ‘[keep your books].
To hold or retain in one’s possession as one’s own. “Please keep the mats” (Take the mats away, you now own them)
Don’t be surprised if someone takes, whatever you asked them to ‘keep’, away with them.
14. Last time
Any event previously, in the past – “Last time, in kampong, we are very poor.”
“Last time” refers to a specific occurrence of something, not something that happened long ago, nor something that happened continually in the past. It cannot refer to a general time in the past. For that we use “previously” or “in the past”. For example, “Last time in class we studied algebra”.
If you said “Last time Romans wore shorts”, you are obviously a time traveling Time Lord.
The use of Madam (Mdm) in Singapore has been generally used by married women who wish to use their maiden surname.
There is no such tradition in other English-speaking countries. ‘Ms’ is used when marital status is unknown. (However, in Singapore ‘Ms’ is the abbreviation of ‘Miss’)
a polite term of address for a woman, esp one considered to be of relatively high social status
a woman who runs a brothel
Brit informal a precocious or pompous little girl
When we go to the market or supermarket.
Marketing is used to describe what companies do when they promote a product
“Last night I mug so much, so sian already”. (to mug is to cram for an examination. sian is an adjective for “bored/tired”.) A mugger is thus a hardworking student who memorises notes and regurgitates them during exams.
“He everytime go library until it close. Damn mugger, siah!”
Attack and rob (someone) in a public place: “he was mugged by three men who stole his bike”
However, mugging (mug up), in the sense of learning and revising, is a legitimate English informal definition. However, this usage is not in common use in the UK.
Singapore has incorporated some British slang from the colonial era into their everyday speech and as such the definition of the word ‘mug’ has remained the same ever since the British left. However, most of the British slang used in Britain from the 40s and 50s would have been replaced, hence the misunderstanding across cultures and borders. Nowadays mugging is associated with being robbed.
So if you decide to announce you are “mugging” in England or the USA please explain yourself before someone calls the police.
18. Off day
A day when people do not go to work. “Tomorrow is my off day”
A day in which you are not at your normal level of performance. “I’m really having an off day, everything is going wrong”
“Tomorrow is my off day” sounds like you predict your bad days into the future.
19. Open (the light)
To turn on a light – “I open the light.” (Derived from Chinese, which uses the verb “to open” in this manner. Use of “open” to mean “turn on” is limited specifically to lamps or lights.)
Move (a door or window) so as to leave a space allowing access and vision.
“She opened the door and went in”
When you are out of town, or away overseas.
You are going off to a station in a remote or sparsely populated location.
21. Pass Up
To give in something to someone. Example “Pass up your homework”.
Pass up is used when talking about chances or offers to do something
Reply. “Revert to me at this address.”
Common phrases found in email messages include:
Replace with: “Please respond.”
“Please revert to me.”
Replace with: “Please get back to me.”
“I will revert to you tomorrow.”
Replace with: “I will reply tomorrow.”
“Please revert as soon as possible.”
Replace with: “I look forward to hearing from you soon” or “Please reply as soon as possible.”
To regress or go back to a former condition. “Revert to me” literally means they are asking you to become them. Please avoid using “revert” in email messages when you mean to say “reply”, “answer” or “respond”. Revert actually means “to return to a previous state”. In legal terms, revert means “to return a property to its original owner”.
Actual Uses of Revert:
“From tomorrow onwards, we will revert to our old practice of recording all sales transactions on paper instead of keying them into the computer.”
“When the princess kissed the frog, he turned into a prince. But after he betrayed her, he reverted to his amphibian form.”
In Singapore English, an adult can scold another adult. This is similar to the Mandarin 骂(ma4). “The following month, she accused her maid of taking a nap when she was supposed to be looking after her eight-month-old baby, and scolded her.”
Scold is only for adults toward children. Instead an adult would ‘have a go’ or reprimand another adult.
To take (i.e. drive) somebody somewhere – “I’ll send you home”. The Singapore English usage of send may be an influence of Mandarin 送(song4).
Send – cause to go or be taken to a destination. “Send” is used when something (or someone) goes away from you, but you don’t go along. When you send a letter, you don’t get into the mailbox and go with it.
Be careful, the assumed ending to the phrase “I’ll send you home”, is one of the following:
“in an ambulance”
“in a body bag”
“in little pieces”
To be extremely tired. To be honest it should be spelt ‘shack’, however it is often misspelled and mispronounced as ‘shag’ in Singapore. This is due to the voiced ‘g’ sound and voiceless ‘k’ sound not being distinctly articulated.
“Damm shag lah”
British vulgar colloquialism meaning: to have sexual intercourse with.
If you said “I’ve got severe sleep deprivation because of this shag week”, a British person would congratulate you 🙂
A term derived from the Army, where smoke is used to conceal tactical operations. Means to bluff, cause a diversion, or confuse someone. It’s used commonly during examinations, when someone has no idea how to answer the question and has to bullshit all the way.
“I know you and Ah Huay are going pak tor. Don’t try and smoke me”
“Wah lao, the essay question so cheem, donno what to write. So I just anyhow write anything, lor. Aiyah, just smoke all the way can oreddy, lah.”
A visible suspension of carbon or other particles in air, typically one emitted from a burning substance. An act of smoking tobacco.
“I’m dying for a smoke”
Broken down. From the Malay word ‘rosak’, which means both ‘broken’ (computer, door etc) and ‘spoilt’ with regards to food.
1. To ruin. For example: ‘She spoilt the movie by telling us the ending’.
2. To pamper. For example: ‘That boy is so spoilt. His parents buy him everything he asks for’.
3. (Of food) To go off or become bad. For example: ‘That food will spoil if you leave it out’.
Toys break; equipment gets damaged; but food spoils and children are spoilt
To live (in a place). From Malay “tinggal”. – “My grandmother, my aunt and uncle also stay next door.”
Live somewhere temporarily as a visitor or guest. Live is permanent – if you live somewhere, that place is your home, that is where all your things are. If you go away on holiday or on a business trip, you will stay somewhere, most likely a hotel.
You go on vacation and stay at a hotel, but you live in Tampines.
Conveying either a lack of any activity, a state of stupor or stunned bewilderment. While it may owe its origins to it, the local use of the term seems to lack any connection with drug-use.
A state of mind which occurs after smoking enough marijuana to the point where the user stares blankly into whatever catches his/her attention, and giggles.
If you say you are stoned in the UK or the USA you may be hassled for some weed.
To eat; to have a meal – “Have you taken your lunch?”
Taken my lunch where?