11 Beguiling South African Words and Their Everyday Meanings

11 Beguiling South African Words and Their Everyday Meanings

If you want to get a glimpse of what a culture is truly like look no further than its slang. Colloquial language reveals much about a country’s history, its quirks, its outlook and, vitally, its sense of humor. In South Africa, where 11 languages compete to be heard it’s even more important to have an understanding of what’s being said to you. You don’t want people to think you’re a mampara after all.

Read on for 11 beguiling South African words and their everyday meanings.

In South Africa China does not mean a vast communist nation in East Asia, nor does it mean a type of porcelain or ceramic used to make tea sets for fancy people. In South Africa ‘China’ means ‘good friend’ and is one of the last remaining vestiges of Cockney rhyming slang in use in the country. China plate = mate. Perfect.



Pronounced with a rolling r, lekker is a very hard-working word in South African and can be used in pretty much any circumstance to express satisfaction.




Jol can be used to refer to any kind of party, disco, family activity or general good-time in South Africa. May or not derive from the British, ‘a jolly’.




To confess that you’re in a ‘dwaal’ in South Africa is to say that you’re feeling a bit brain-dead, that you drifted off for a moment and missed whatever it is you were supposed to be focusing on.

The word mampara comes from the Sotho language group and can be used in an insulting way or in a light-hearted, you silly mampara sort of way.

Wherever you go in the world there will be a different word for the useless remains of a cigarette. Where I grew up in the UK we used ‘dumper’ and in South Africa its ‘stompie’, a marvelous word that can also be used in the idiom ‘picking up stompies’ which means to intrude on a conversation at the end with no understanding of what came before.



There’s something wonderfully comforting about the word muti when you compare it to the sterile and scary-sounding ‘medication’. From the isiZulu language, muti typically refers to traditional African medicine.



Forget Johnny 5, C3PO and the T-100, a robot in South Africa is not an electro-mechanical helper/villain but a simple traffic light.




Saying ‘oke’ in South Africa is similar to saying guy or dude.



A Yiddish word now to blow your mind. In South Africa, kugel often refers to an overtly-groomed, patently materialistic young woman and comes from the Yiddish word for a plain pudding that is dressed up as a delicacy. In England we have the hideous phrase ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ which means something along the same lines.

Pronounced with an uh sound, like bub-buh-luss, babalaas is a great word for that washed-out, nauseous feeling after one too many the night before.


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