Borrow ‘lang’ | Inquirer Opinion
Pinoy Kasi

Borrow ‘lang’

/ 12:05 AM September 11, 2015

To prepare for a class in anthropological linguistics, with a lecture on the dynamism of languages, I visited the Internet site of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to look at the new words accepted.

As I browsed through the Oxford site, I found a listing of new Filipino words in the OED and an article explaining those words, written by Danica Salazar. I remembered reading an article about her being a graduate of European languages from the University of the Philippines and working with the OED as a consultant. Also, that she has worked hard to get the OED to be more conscious about Philippine English and other “World Englishes.”


Before this recent check with the OED, I was under the impression that the Philippines had not contributed much to standard English beyond: “boondocks” (from our bundok), “Manila paper,” and the source of that paper, “abaca,” or “Manila hemp.”

Now, we might have several more entries in the OED coming largely from Salazar’s research, which entails going back in time to look for the usage of particular words and establishing a Philippine connection.


The June 2015 list of new Filipino words for the OED has the following: advanced, bahala na, balikbayan, baon, barangay, barkada, barong, barong tagalog, baro’t saya, batchmate, buko, carnap, carnapper, comfort room, despedida, dirty, estafa, gimmick, go, halo-halo, high, kikay, KKB, mabuhay, mani-pedi, pan de sal, pasalubong, presidentiable, pulutan, salvage, sari-sari store, sinigang, suki and utang na loob.

That may still seem to be only a handful compared to the thousands of English words, but looking at how these words are entering global English use can be fascinating.

Mani-pedi, comfort room

Take mani-pedi as an example. I could guess what it meant but had never used the term myself, or heard people using it, maybe because my mother and sister never used them either. But when I checked with my students, they said it has been around for a long time. The OED definition is “a beauty treatment comprising both a manicure and a pedicure,” and the term is attributed to writer K. Polotan-Tuvera, who used it in an article in the Philippine Daily Express, May 12, 1972. (That’s how much research is done for dictionaries and linguistic research, but it has been made easier now with search engines and “word bots” [word robots] roaming the Internet.)

OED entries give examples of how the term is used, and where, so we find it used in 1991 in Gleaner, a magazine based in Kingston, Jamaica: “There are two mani-pedi specialists who will leave the toes and fingers in tip top shape.” And in the May 1, 2004, issue of the Toronto Globe and Mail, there’s this sentence: “She needs two hair tryouts, a facial, a mani-pedi and tanning session to get ready for her … formal.”

That’s a long journey for a word, and we find similar patterns for other Philippine English words.

“Comfort room” is iconic when it comes to long “journeys.” I had always presumed this was a uniquely Filipino English term, and have always warned fellow Filipinos about to travel overseas for the first time that they will probably get puzzled looks if they ask where the comfort room is. In the rest of the world, you have to ask for a toilet, a washroom or a restroom.


But the OED entry gives a different picture of this term, defined as a “public toilet (now chiefly Philippine English).” It seems the term was first used in the United States, not in the Philippines. The OED’s oldest citation is from the Santa Fe Daily New Mexican newspaper, Dec. 24, 1886: “On the west side of the third floor … are the large public comfort rooms, closets, lavatories…” An article from 1920, in the Railway Age, has this: “The men are provided with comfort rooms, containing stoves, toilet facilities…”

We find a New York Times article in 1985 quoting Ferdinand Marcos: “I was able to urinate as much as 3,000 cc. in one day… If you’d seen me going to the comfort room.”

We can presume then that Americans brought the term to us and I suspect it may have been by soldiers during the Philippine-American War, who presumably had camp “comfort rooms” that were, well, comforting. The term fell into disuse in the United States but lives on in the Philippines.

Semantic shifts

The list also reflects language dynamism in terms of semantic shifts. When we borrow words from another language, they sometimes move away from the original meaning. I was surprised to see “advanced” in the OED list of words from Filipino English, and it turns out we’re the only ones who use it to refer to a watch that is, well, ahead of the correct time, as in “My watch is advanced.”

I did think of another change of meaning in “advanced,” which people use during weddings as they watch the bride walking down the aisle. My students chimed in, “Sir, deposit.”

“Dirty” was listed because we have “dirty kitchens.” The OED cites a 1986 article by retired UP professor Alice Guillermo that also explains the term: “Middle-class households may have a dining room for everyday use as well as a dirty kitchen to keep the sweat and soot away from the guests.”

Filipino academics should be doing our own work as well to look at changes in Philippine English (or Englishes—Cebuano English is different from Tagalog English), as well as with Philippine languages.

Again, the work will be similar to a journey: looking for origins and finding the many twists and turns around the borrowing process. The OED list includes the notorious “salvage,” which in English means “to save” or “to recover,” but in Philippine English means an extrajudicial execution. People have wondered why that shift took place, and one theory is that the dark meaning may have come from the Spanish “salvaje” which means “wild” (as in savages), but took a detour in Filipino to become “salbahe,” to mean “behaving badly.”

The OED list also has “kuya” and “suki,” which came into the Philippines through Chinese.

Languages develop because people move around, crossing national borders. The Americans brought us English, which we modified into Philippine English. Now, with the Filipino diaspora, we might find Philippine English contributing back to English in Britain, the United States, Canada and throughout the world.

The process is so well captured in the way we’ve changed the meaning of “borrow.” When someone says “borrow lang,” you know that it just might mean “thank you.” That’s the way it goes with words: We borrow, and we keep, making it our own, changing its pronunciation, its tone, and even its meaning.

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TAGS: Language, linguistics, new words, Oxford English Dictionary
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