‘Tokhang’ as keyword
For several years now, UP Diliman has been a venue and a cosponsor, with the Filipinas Institute of Translation and the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, in the search for a Salita ng Taon or Filipino Word of the Year.
The procedure has been simple: A call for nominations is made and people, mostly faculty and students, send in essays to explain why their nominated word should be the Salita ng Taon. The nominations are short-listed and the essayists are invited to present their essays at a public forum, with a board of judges selecting the winners.
The event has caught public attention, with standing-room-only crowds who now have to preregister to attend.
In case you missed the event and the news coverage last month, the winner this year at the symposium was Mark Angeles’ “tokhang.”
All the short-listed essays are masterpieces, and although I would have wanted the pieces uploaded on the web, they are reserved for an anthology to be published by the UP Press, so we will have to wait.
I did get copies of the essays, and Angeles’ piece got me thinking hard. Titled “Sanayan Lang ang Pagtokhang” (loosely translated, “Getting Used to Tokhang”), it is really a biography of the word — where it started and how it has developed.
Words of the year are sometimes ephemeral and faddish, fading quickly from public memory like slang words. But words like tokhang seem to have longer lives, during which their meanings mutate. Not only do they end up with several meanings, each with lives of their own, they also become what the Welsh literary scholar Raymond Williams called “keywords,” which was also the title of his book that has gone through two editions.
Williams never gave a short definition of keywords, but you can derive the definition from how he wrote the book. He chose words which had become significant in English, showing how they persist, and change, through the centuries. More importantly, they were considered “key” because they shed light on society and culture. Like the keywords we type in for an internet search, these keywords can lead us to very informative insights about a topic of interest.
Tokhang is such a word. It started out as a “sleeper” in January 2012 when Rodrigo Duterte was mayor of Davao City and Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa was head of the Davao City Police Office. There were two programs introduced at that time, both described with Cebuano portmanteaus (a combination of words): “taphang” from “tapok” (to gather together) and “hangyo” (to
appeal or talk things over), and tokhang from the onomatopoeic “tok-tok” (knock, knock) and, again, hangyo.
Both words were originally civil, even congenial and appealing, suggesting conciliation. Alas, within a few weeks after tokhang’s introduction nationwide with Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs, it came to mean extrajudicial killings. My friends among the urban poor played on the words, transforming it into tok-tok, bang-bang. The police, in turn, began to try to justify the campaign as one with peaceful intentions, but which turned
violent only when people resisted: “nanlaban.”
The violent connotations of tokhang have persisted; now it’s become synonymous with “patayan” or killing. Facing protests about the killing, President Duterte suspended the campaign, then revived it as Project Tokhang: Revisited and Tokhang Reloaded, with Dela Rosa promising it would be “less bloody, if not bloodless,” a tacit admission that tokhang had lost its “hangyo” politeness.
Meanwhile, tokhang became titles for art exhibits, social
media presentations, books, often satirical and playful.
All this leads me to think of tokhang as a classic keyword. The Philippine National Police, who coined the word, continues to use it both as a peaceful and threatening word. The public, so very Filipino, mangles the word, to mourn its bloody outcomes as well as to mock the authorities behind the operations.
It all reminds me of the words used to refer to bribery and corruption, hundreds of them compiled by the Center for People Empowerment in Governance some years ago. Think of the timeless “arreglo”; the original Spanish used to mean “to come to an agreement,” but which now means government bureaucrats and their accomplices working out, for a fee, an illegal “solution.”
Tokhang as a keyword betrays our ambivalence toward the law and so-called law enforcers. Tokhang is feared and hated, yet sometimes begrudged, almost desired, because of its promises of solving the drug problem (or problems).
The word will continue to evolve, maybe more along jesting lines. We laugh to mock and to scorn but, in the long dark nights of our slums, the laughter is at once mocking yet nervous.
Tokhang is a keyword in our expanding lexicon of violence and impunity.
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