Ghost man makes his entrance

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 September, 2003, 12:00am

The insult that formerly made westerners wince has been lent an air of respectability by being included in the 355,000 words and phrases of the new Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE). Despite what polite Hong Kong grandmothers may say, gweilo, defined as 'a foreigner, especially a westerner (Cantonese, literally 'ghost man')', is now harmless, reclaimed and made respectable by westerners in much the same vein as gay men reclaimed the insult, queer.

'We were not sure if it was derogatory but the word cropped up everywhere, and not only in a derogatory sense, so we included it,' says Catherine Soanes, ODE project manager. 'A lot of insults are reclaimed. Gringo comes to mind, as does gora, the Indian term for foreigner which we have also included.'

About 3,000 new words and phrases have been added to the ODE 2nd edition, its first update in five years. Many of the newcomers are of Asian origin. Chinese words include kiasu ('a grasping, selfish attitude, from the Chinese, 'scared to lose'') and rice bowl, meaning one's livelihood. From Malay-Chinese comes lepak, or 'loafing youths'.

The words are spotted by dictionary editors in newspapers, journals, films, novels and songs around the world and sent into a database to assess the frequency and spread of its use. 'English is a global language, driven by the internet and the Americanisation of culture,' says Soanes. 'But it is also a two-way process. The more people who speak English ultimately leads to more 'foreign' words being assimilated by English.'

Some, which had previously slipped through the system, such as Cantopop and sic bo, the dice game, have now been caught, although others have appeared quickly, such as Falun Gong and Sars, a word most would prefer to forget.

Many Japanese words, usually relating to cookery, also feature, largely due to the growing popularity of Japanese food. Robata, the charcoal grill, appears, as does almost every type of sushi. In much the same vein, so popular has traditional Chinese medicine become in the west that it has its own acronym, TCM. There is also cupping, the therapy in which heated glass cups are stuck to the skin.

The ODE also reflects trends in spoken and written English, with an appendix reserved for text messaging. There are YMMV ('your mileage may vary', as in you are entitled to your opinion) and ROTFL ('rolling on the floor laughing'), a take on LOL ('laugh out loud'). In fact there's plenty of mobile phone jargon, such as handphone, roaming and ringtone, which mustn't be confused with ringer, 'a highly proficient person'.

Hongkongers will also know the South African word for annual bonus, the 13th cheque, although that may be a fading memory in the current economic climate.

The ODE illustrates the trend towards adding prefixes and suffixes to words, including the device 'lish', as in Chinglish, 'the blend of a particular language with English', and all manner of words starting with 'cyber', as in cyberslacker, 'using an employer's internet and e-mail for personal use during worktime'.

Soanes also notes the trend of melding words: blamestorming, a take on brainstorming but rather 'a meeting held to attribute blame', popstrel ('young pop star-cum-minstrel'), sampladelic ('dance music created using samples and other digital technology'), affluential ('rich and socially influential'), glamazon ('a glamorous, powerfully assertive woman'), shockumentary ('a sensationalist documentary').

One very Hong Kong-sounding new word is ka-ching, 'the sound used to represent the sound of a cash register', which may be very apt considering the new dictionary costs $433. Still, it's worth it if you don't want to appear a Muggle, Harry Potter-speak for 'a person not conversant with a particular activity or skill' or a Muppet, British slang for a fool.