At the height of Hong Kong’s 2014 pro-democracy protests, media artists launched a website for world-wide messages of support to be sent to protesters, displayed in real-time online, and projected onto buildings at protest sites. That they named the initiative the “Add Oil Machine for OCLP [Occupy Central with Love and Peace]” marked a significant step in the evolu­tion of English in Cantonese-dominant Hong Kong.

Add oil! The evolution of Hong Kong English, and where our unique words come from

An expression of exhortation in Cantonese, 加油 (ga1yau4; “add/increase fuel”) is well known to Hongkongers, originating as a Macau Grand Prix chant during the 1960s and now used to cheer a team on or as encouragement in challenging times – exams, physical exertion, boyfriend trouble. In the past decade, the English phrase “add oil”, a word-for-word translation from Cantonese – just as “Devil’s advocate” and “by heart” are Latin and French calques – has gained prominence among young bilingual Hongkongers, but solely in computer-mediated communication (CMC), such as SMS, online chat or on social media.

Two factors prompt this. Because the input of Chinese char­­acters involves writing character strokes or typing roman­ised Cantonese, and then selecting the specific character from several options, most young Hongkongers prefer typing in English and/or romanised Cantonese – it is simply quicker. Moreover, CMC, a mode straddling writing and speech, is less constrained by prescriptive rules and people feel freer to use language differently than in more conventional contexts.

Young Hongkongers don’t use the English calque “add oil” when speaking, but in CMC they type “add oil” regularly, which­ever language they are communicating in. Interestingly, CMC usage feeds back into the spoken domain: more English-domi­nant Hongkongers are starting to use “add oil” when speaking.

This powerful Chinglish phrase is now in the Oxford Dictionary

Hong Kong’s “added oil” is emblematic of the impact of the global knowledge economy on language change. In communi­ties where English is not used widely or regularly in everyday, informal domains, a definable new English variety does not have the space to develop and stabilise. CMC comprises a platform that catalyses this process. And when politics and new media collide – as with the “Add Oil Machine” – new Englishes get an instant boost on the international scene, leading to new words or phrases such as “add oil” becoming more widely known, more intelligible to global audiences, and consequently more acceptable to the outside world and the users them­selves.

A search of #addoil on social-media platforms garners hundreds of thousands of hits – and not of the petrol or cooking kind. Hong Kong English speakers – add oil!