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Dictionary adds oil to use of Cantonese

  • The inclusion of the versatile expression in the Oxford English dictionary has been seen by some as a symbolic victory for Hong Kong’s identity
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2018, 12:49am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 October, 2018, 12:49am

If you do not know what “add oil” means, it is probably time you did. This versatile “Chinglish” expression has often been used among Hongkongers to show encouragement and support, so much so that it has made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. Despite some confusion as to precisely when the word was included, it became a talking point on social media, with some interpreting it as a symbolic victory for the Cantonese language and Hong Kong’s identity.

The reaction is to be expected in the wake of escalating debates over the importance of Mandarin and Cantonese. Literally meaning to put petrol into a machine, the phrase is pronounced as jia you in Mandarin and ga yau in Cantonese. But bilingual Hongkongers have popularised its usage by anglicising it in writing as “add oil”, with multiple meanings like “keep going”, “work harder”, “soldier on” and even “good luck”.

A Chinese phrase has joined the Oxford English Dictionary. Here’s how

The dictionary described it as “chiefly Hong Kong English”. Whether it has anything to do with Cantonese pride and local identity is open to discussion. Similar sentiments were expressed a few years ago when the words “Hongkongers” and “Hongkongese” made into the dictionary along with 900 other words in its quarterly update. Like the entries of some Singlish (Singaporean English) words such as shiok – cool, great, delicious, superb – the move appears to be a simple recognition of common usage.

The new entry has joined a long list of Chinese words accepted in English, such as kung fu, dim sum and feng shui. Indeed, just as English comprises many words with foreign origins, some English and Japanese words have been localised into Cantonese.

There have been suggestions that the number of Chinese words in English dictionaries has increased significantly in the past two decades. The word guanxi – meaning influential relationships – is a must-know for foreigners who want to do business on the mainland. The acceptance of more Chinese words into foreign languages is arguably a reflection of the rising stature of China, as well as its influence and soft power. There is also growing interest among foreigners to learn Chinese. Growing cultural exchanges and globalisation will mean more foreign words and expressions being incorporated into other languages.