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Photo: weeta

Insider tips about slang expressions and idioms around the world.
South Africa

Though the first language of many white South Africans is English, don’t be fooled into thinking that means you won’t need a translator. Certain phrases whose meanings no longer have any relation to their American equivalents have seeped their way into the national vocabulary.

“Epic fail” is used 100% more frequently than I’ve ever heard it in the United States. “Hectic” refers to anything from a dance club to a T-shirt. And if anyone tells you that they’ll do something “now,” you better be ready to wait a while. “Now” means pretty much anytime in the future. “Just now” might mean soon-ish, or it might mean they really just want to get rid of you. If they say “now now,” you actually might be in business!

Courtesy of: Leona Rosenblum


While speaking to a friend back home in Portuguese, he asked me: “Está ficando com alguém lá?” “Ficar” means lots of different things, but its basic meaning is to remain or to stay. So, I replied, “Sim com uma familia.” (Yes, with a family.)

I had just told him that I was making out with a family. Ficar com (with) is to make out. Ficar em (in) is innocent. If you don’t want to make people think rather badly of you, you can say, “Fico na casa de uma familia.” (I’m staying at a family’s house.)

Courtesy of: Christina Briscoe


A linguistic anomaly in England, rhyming slang supposedly developed as an idiom of resistance in the rougher parts of East London – to confuse the cops and unwanted outsiders. The idea is to substitute for one standard English word a different rhyming word or phrase, then shorten as necessary.

The “Wight way to rabbit,” then, would be “the Isle of Wight (right) way to rabbit and pork (talk).” You might also hear someone ask you to take your “plates off the Gable,” that is, your “plates of meat (feet) off the Clark Gable (table).” I’ve actually heard people use rhyming slang quite a bit in London. Try it out yourself, but only in the right company.

Courtesy of Marshall Worsham


One of my jobs at the school where I worked in southern Japan was writing letters to students each week. I had up to 80 student journals to read and respond to, and students were often amazed at the massive pile of notebooks I’d be working through at lunch.

They’d often make a strong-guy gesture (flexing a bicep) and say, “Fight!” This confused me at first, but I soon learned that it was a rough translation of the Japanese “Ganbatte!” meaning, roughly, “Do your best!” or “keep it up!” Or, if one is attending a sporting event, “go team!”

Makes you feel like a champion every time you hear it. Even if you’re just pushing a red pen.

Courtesy of: Saleem Reshamwala


To travel like a local, forget the names listed on the map. The capital Lilongwe is known colloquially as “Ls” and Blantyre, Malawi’s largest city, is “BT.” These epithets make sense. But a more peculiar moniker belongs to Zomba, which Malawians call “Texas.”

No, Zomba is not enormous or fiercely independent or inhabited by large numbers of cowboys on horseback. But as the colonial-era capital, Zomba had a disproportionately white population. Never mind that those whites were British — apparently nothing evokes visions of whiteness like Texas, and thus the designation.

Courtesy of: Rebecca Jacobson

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Language Learning


About The Author

Sarah Menkedick

Matador Contributing Editor Sarah Menkedick has traveled, lived, and taught on five continents, and is constantly in pursuit of spicy food, dark beer, and new places to run. She is an MFA student at the University of Pittsburgh.

  • Heidi

    Koreans use “Fighting!!” just as the Japanese use “Fight!”

    Have you ever tried to read Indonesian text or FB posts??? omg they abbreviate everything, eliminating vowels!

    pg k Dpsr = going to Denpasar for ex!

    and good luck with the slang from each dialect!

  • Camden Luxford

    I’m loving the Peruvian slang – my favourite is “un chancae de a veinte” which means easy, not a problem, and draws its name from tiny little sweet pastries of twenty centimos each, devoured in one quick mouthful. I also love “Cánada” as slang for jail. “Where’s your son?” “Oh, he’s in Cánada”.

  • eileen

    Chile, land of Spanish slang also has Canadá for slang for jail, which comes from la cana, itself a mystery to me, but surely comes from coa, which is the jail-based slang. I’ve been told a lot of coa has Argentine crossover, but didn’t know it did with Peru as well!

  • Amanda

    in Bangla, the word “fourteen” and “f**k” are one extra ‘d’ away from each other.. so i’m super careful when I say “I want to go to road 14, please…”

  • sam

    Theres french verlan too which commes from the word l’envers or reverse. You reverse the syllables in words thus l’en-vers (silent s) becomes ver-lan. One good example is the word keuf, it means cop and comes from the english word fuck. Other frequently used words are meuf = femme, renoit = noire, beur = arabe, relou = lourd, cimer = merci etc..

  • Ryan

    I didn’t learn enough of the Thai language while teaching there but I was often told about the word play many Thai’s like to have fun with.

    Some phrases may just be strange sounding in traslation but others were downright goofy. For example, many people who think their English skills are poor will say “phuud pasa Anglit ngoo ngoo plahr plahr” which means, “I speak English snake snake fish fish.”

    I liked a few others like “jai yen” which means “cool heart” and is said in place of a phrase like ‘calm down.’ Also, a smooth talker was called “sweet mouth.” There were plenty more but my memory has failed me.

    …and I speak Thai snake snake fish fish

  • Rock

    Lolx Amanda .. b careful dude ;)

  • Kate

    I was going to mention “Fighting” in Korea but someone beat me to it! My other favorite is that Koreans throw in the English word “something” to substitute for things they’re embarrassed to say explicitly, namely for sex. My students giggle every time I use the word “something,” no matter how many times in a class I say it!!

  • Flash Animations

    I also want to learn some new Slangs and Idioms to improve my English. I think, the best way to improve your English is Talking with other people in English; that’d defentiy helps you improving your English.

  • Mark

    I am South African and can attest to the fact that certain South African slang words have become such a part of the language that one doesn’t even realise that they are slang! For example, one could say ‘just now’, which is a little bit later than ‘now now’. You try telling a South African that uses the term ‘just now’ that it isn’t used internationally and watch their surprise. Also, Afrikaners have the tradition of referring to elders as uncle or aunt/auntie (as in Uncle Mike or Aunt Hilda) even if they aren’t related, it derives from the tradition in the Afrikaans language of calling someone older ‘oom’ (pronounce the oo like in poor) and ‘tannie’ (tunn-ee). Many (especially English speakers) don’t enjoy this however, and one should always ask how people prefer to be addressed.

  • Lin Robinson

    Very true, and probably universal. Note how wrong you could go with something like “screw up” in English.
    In my book Mexican Slang 101 I mention a lot of those. The idea that “padre” means “cool”, but “madre” has so many negative and even unrpintable variations is weird enough, but then you get to things like “a la Madre” or “me vale madre” being very depreciative, while “a todo Madre” or “no tiene madre” are very positive.

    • Dick Damron

      got the book…need the t shirt……………dd

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