Beyond boondocks: Pinoy words in the Oxford English Dictionary

Image: 'OED' Found on

Image: ‘OED’
Found on

When asked which Filipino word has made it into the English language, most Pinoys will answer with the word boondocks. It’s a perfectly valid response, as the term comes directly from the Tagalog word bundok (mountain), and is an American slang term for rough country, now frequently shortened to boonies. It began to be used in the 1940s, around the time that American soldiers were fighting the Japanese in our boondocks. So this word is evidently one that Americans picked up in the Philippines and took back home to the United States.

Another interesting question, though, is which Filipino words have made it into the English language, not because they were used by Americans in the U.S., but by Filipinos in the Philippines. This one is a bit more difficult to answer, but to do so, the most obvious step seems to be to consult a dictionary. I’m hardly the first person to have this idea: back in 1970, Fe Yap published a study entitled Pilipino loan words in English, which featured a list of Philippine words that appeared in Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (1961) and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language (1968). As can be seen from the following selection from the first three letters of the alphabet, Yap’s list seem to be limited to three semantic groups: native flora and fauna, household and cultural items, and names of Philippine ethnic groups.

Aeta, anahau, Apayao, apitong, Bagobo, balete, banga, Bisayan, calesa, camagon, carabao, cogon

Kingsley Bolton and Susan Butler, reviewing Yap’s list over three decades later, called this type of vocabulary “Webster words”—words of mostly botanical, zoological and anthropological interest dating back to the American colonial period. These authors compared Yap’s list with the then-current online edition of Merriam-Webster (2003), and found that the Philippines was still mainly represented in this dictionary by the same somewhat archaic words identified by Yap more than thirty years before. Bolton and Butler also consulted the Oxford English Dictionary and found the same prevalence of Webster words, and an even more limited coverage of Philippine words than Merriam-Webster.

I was very interested to find out if all this still holds true. As soon as I started working at OUP, I scoured the OED for all evidence of the Philippines. The results of my search fall into three categories: there are of course the dozens of Webster words, which are borrowings from Philippine languages and Spanish, but there are also hundreds of words that may not be entirely characteristic of Philippine English, but are illustrated by quotations taken from Philippine sources, ranging from the very old to the very new.

It can be said just by looking at the following examples that Filipino borrowings that have entered the OED are still mostly in the Webster-word category. They all refer to plants and animals, terms for ethnic origin, and cultural items, and only a few of them can be considered to form part of the everyday vocabulary of the average Philippine English speaker.

From Tagalog and other Philippine languages:
calangay, colugo, malmag, taclobo, taguan, tamarau, tambagut
baku, balibuntal, buntal, buri, cadang-cadang, cogon, dita, galanga, kamachili, Lacatan, lauan, narra, paribuntal, ylang-ylang
Manila, Sulu
Life and culture
anting-anting, barangay, kumpit, panguingue, vinta
Ethnic groups and languages
Bajau, Ibanag, Ifugao, Illano, Ilocano, Manobo, Maranao, Pangasinan, Pilipino, Tagalog, Tasaday, Tau Sug

From Spanish:
Life and culture
abanderado, adelantado, barrio, beno/vino, bolo, caracore, gayelle, insurrecto, jai alai, ladronism, Pacifico, padre, patache, patria, persiana, pesame, peso, petate, población, presidente
Terms for ethnic origin
Filipino, Indio, mestiza, mestizo, Moro, Negrillo, Negrito
Animals and plants
algarroba, camote, jusi, maguey, pina, roncador, sacate, sampaguita

However, apart from the words that are directly attributed to the Philippines or Philippine languages in definition or etymology, I also discovered hundreds of words that are exemplified by quotations taken from publications about or from the Philippines.

Filipino sources in the OED date back to as early as the 1700s, centuries before English even reached our shores. These quotations are taken from English translations of descriptive accounts originally written in Spanish, such as the 1708 translation of de Argensola’s Conquista de las islas Molucas (1609), shown here with a quotation for the entry capitulation:

1708 tr. L. de Argensola Discov. & Conquest Molucco & Philippine Islands x. 250 This Original Capitulation was brought into Spain, with the other authentick Instruments.

A hundred years later, English-speaking authors began writing accounts of their travels to the Philippines, and the OED was able to source quotations from such books as A Visit to the Philippine Islands (1859) by Sir John Bowring and The Philippine Islands by Dean C. Worcester (1915):

1859 J. Bowring Visit to Philippine Islands xvi. 274 Oxen, swine, buffaloes, deer, goats..flying squirrels, dogs, rats, mungoes and other quadrupeds, are found in various stages of domesiticity and wildness.

A century further on, many words pertaining to indigenous plants and animals were attested in Filipino scientific publications, such as the Philippine Journal of Science and the Philippine Agricultural Review, as well as Filipino books on botany and anthropology.

1909 Philippine Agric. Rev. 2 590 A new variety of coffee known as ‘robusta’..was discovered some years ago growing wild on the estates in Africa.

More recent quotations come from Filipino-American news publications such as Filipinas Magazine, Filipino Reporter and Filipino Express, as well as the widely read local broadsheet Philippine Daily Inquirer and the business magazine Business World:

blind item
2006 Philippine Daily Inquirer (Nexis) 23 Sept., That blind item I wrote some months ago about a PBA assistant coach being involved in cybersex should have served as a wake-up call.

2000 Business World (Philippines) (Nexis) 14 Apr. 42 Its Manila office is sponsoring ‘Nursingly Yours, The Netherlands,’ a program which will provide training for qualified Filipino nurses.

2000 Philippine Daily Inquirer (Nexis) 15 Mar. 9 Policemen who’ve grown uhhh, overnourished, by helping themselves to free meals at the expense of hapless carinderia owners.

1999 Business World (Philippines) 22 Jan. 33/1 Texting has become so popular that it introduced a convenient new communication channel.

This is the present situation, but how about the future? The good news is that editorial interest at the OED is now moving towards more contemporary examples that are more in keeping with modern Filipino life. Apart from borrowing from the local languages, there are plenty of other means by which the lexicon of a colonial language can be enriched when it is adopted in a foreign land. There is semantic change, or the assignation of new meanings to existing words. The word salvage went through this process when its meaning changed from the original “to rescue” to its current Filipino meaning of “to summarily execute”. There are also a number of ways to coin new words, like derivation, compounding, clipping, abbreviation and conversion. Recent editorial research at the OED traced the first usage of mani-pedi, the clipping and blending of the words manicure and pedicure, to an essay by Filipino writer Kerima Polotan-Tuvera published in the 1970s. The OED is also extending its research to fields beyond flora and fauna, with food being a particularly good source of a wealth of new words. In my search, I found one Filipino dish that entered the dictionary very recently, in December 2011.

adobo, n.
1. In Filipino cookery: a spicy stew, typically consisting of pork, poultry, or seafood cooked in a vinegar-based sauce, seasoned with garlic, soy sauce, bay leaves, and peppercorns.

Seems to me like a very auspicious start.


20 thoughts on “Beyond boondocks: Pinoy words in the Oxford English Dictionary

  1. Is there a difference, linguistically speaking, between FILIPINO and TAGALOG?


    • Tagalog is the regional language spoken in Luzon, while Filipino is the national language of the Philippines. I’d always thought that this distinction was created for entirely political reasons, or as Wikipedia puts it, a “political fiction” invented to make Tagalog more palatable to non-Tagalog speaking regions. But in 2011 I reviewed a book on Tagalog grammar by a Japanese author (Tagalog Grammar: A Typological Perspective by Takanori Hirano, Hituzi Syobo Publishing, Tokyo, 2012), who gave the following linguistic differences between Tagalog and Filipino:
      1) Filipino, unlike Tagalog, includes many borrowings from other Philippine regional languages (I am very skeptical about this)
      2) Filipino, unlike Tagalog, includes many borrowings from English (now this I think is very true)
      3) Tagalog and Filipino have different case markings. Unlike Tagalog, Filipino has the ng-P marker for human proper nouns. For example, in Filipino you can say “Magkikita kami ni Ser Chief bukas” but in Tagalog this would be grammatically incorrect; you would have to say “Makikita ko si Ser Chief bukas”.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Salamat for your reply.

        Are these “differences” enough to say that Tagalog is really different from Filipino? Is the difference not merely a dialectal difference? Consider the English language. Only 15% of its vacabulary are Anglo-Saxon, the rest are borrowed–how come it is still called English? Singaporean speaks a different English–how come it is still called English?

        Now, i think it is natural for a language to borrow words. If Waray, for example, borrows the word pdf file, internet, tsokolate, Buddha, etc., we will no longer call it WARAY? Eastern Samar dialect of a vowel that is a reflex of PAN /e*/ (Lobel). Is this enough to say that E. Samar Waray is a different language from the rest of the language spoken in E. Visayas–the Waray country?

        Is the sentence below a TAgalog sentence or a FILIPINO sentence?

        (1)Si DJ ay maganda?

        If this is Tagalog, what is its FILIPINO translation?
        If this is FILIPINO, what is its Tagalog translation?

        Will a Tagalog speaker not understand (1)?
        Will Filipino speaker not understand (1)?

        salamat for your time.



      • I can’t quote the reference to a very good and plausible analysis I read somewhere. Author proposes a logical explanation arising from the Tagalog word “sinalbahe” which in turn is derived from Sp. “salvaje”. For instance, “salbahehin” means to do something bad to another. It does look like a borrowing from Spanish that somehow evolved and became became associated with English “salvage”; i.e., “sinalbahe” (or “sinalvaje”) to “sinalvage” — giving rise to different forms of current usage as an English verb (salvage, salvaging, etc.) taken to mean summary killing or execution).


      • In Tagalog “magkikita” and “makikita” have different meanings: “magkikita” really means to meet ; “makikita” means to see or view. The Japanese author (bless his heart for taking an interest in our language to the extent of writing a book) may have missed this not-so-subtle difference which a native Tagalog speaker will readily spot.


  2. Walang anuman at pasensiya na kung medyo natagalan ang sagot na ito.

    You asked me at the beginning whether there were any linguistic differences between Tagalog and Filipino, and I gave you some examples given by a particular author. You bring up some very interesting points that reveal that, from a purely linguistic point of view, there is really not much to separate Tagalog the dialect from Filipino the language. I especially like the translation questions: they really made me think a lot!

    So here’s what I thought:

    Si DJ ay maganda is both Tagalog and Filipino. There is no need for translation. Speakers of both Filipino and Tagalog will understand this sentence.

    Now consider this example:
    Spanish: DJ es bella.
    Catalan: DJ és bella.

    Apart from the accent on the e in Catalan, what is the difference in this particular sentence? None. And yet Spanish and Catalan are two different languages.

    Another example:
    Manila Tagalog: Maglalakad-lakad lang.
    Batangan Tagalog: Hahada laang.

    Quite a difference! And yet these two varieties are just dialects of the same language.

    Unfortunately, determining what is and what is not a language is not always based on linguistic grounds alone. The linguistic criterion has mainly been mutual intelligibility: if two dialects have become so different from each other that a speaker of one cannot understand a speaker of the other, then they must be different languages. Pretty straightforward in theory, but not so much in practice. For example, Serbian and Croatian are mutually intelligible dialects, in fact, the language used to be called Serbo-Croatian. But since Serbia and Croatia have become independent states, there are now two languages: Serbian and Croatian. I know this from experience, because last year when I co-wrote a cross-linguistic study of Spanish and Serbian with a Spanish colleague, we were criticized by the Serbian referees for calling their language Serbo-Croatian instead of just Serbian. On the other hand, many Chinese dialects are mutually unintelligible, and yet they are all known as Chinese. There is really no underestimating the influence of historical, cultural and political factors on the determination of languages.

    That is why, if you ask how many languages are spoken in the Philippines, you get varying numbers, depending on who you ask. I think the real answer to the question of why Filipino is a language is this: because our constitution says so.


    • Hello ho sa inyo. Nag-enjoy naman ako sa article, at lalong nag-enjoy ako sa mga comments.

      May titser po sa amin na taga Batanggas. Naitanong ko kaninang hapon kung “hahada laang” din ba sa kanila. Ang sabi nya ay “gay lingo” daw yon. Totoo kayang gay lingo yun o baka naman sa kanila lang ?



  3. Salamat, DJ.

    You said “I think the real answer to the question of why Filipino is a language is this: because our constitution says so.”

    My question: Using the same method of reasoning you use above, if NSO (National Statistic Office), concurred by the Supreme Court, says that from now on you, DJ Salazar, is a MALE. Will the document that legally identify you as a MALE, makes a true MALE?

    Forgive my example, DJ. However, i hope you see my point.


    • Yes, I see the point. The thing is, there are certain physiological characteristics that make me biologically female, no matter what the NSO or the Supreme Court says. Conversely, if I ever decide to have a sex change and acquire the physiological characteristics of a man, I will become biologically male, even if my birth certificate still says that I’m female. Language classification isn’t quite so clear-cut; it’s all arbitrary, a matter of classification. There is no dialect in the world that has intrinsic characteristics that make it undeniably a language. With animals you can say, oh it has gills, it’s a fish; oh it has ovaries, it’s female. Languages aren’t quite as easily distinguishable, although linguists do try by applying such concepts as mutual intelligibility. But as I have already explained, even that is full of exceptions and fuzzy areas, and non-linguistic factors such as history and politics still heavily influence the status of a dialect. When I said that in the case of Filipino, its status as a language is mainly determined by our Constitution, I didn’t say that as a rebuttal but rather as a statement of fact, an exemplification that, in the Philippines and in many other countries, determining what is and what isn’t a language is more a matter of politics than of linguistics. Whether that is right or wrong is a matter of opinion.


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  7. I’d love to know how exactly salvage morphed from its original meaning to its current one in FIlipino English. Any thoughts on that?


    • This is from “Carabeef Lengua,” a language column I used to write (Manila Times, August 3, 1995): “It was during martial rule that salvaging came to acquire its present Filipino meaning. To salvage is to save things from a wreckage, but the visual similarity of the word to the Tagalog salbahe (naughty, abusive), which is itself derived from the Spanish salvaje (savage), inevitably led to the present denotation of salvaging as extrajudicial or summary execution of both criminal and subversive elements.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for this very interesting comment, Mr. Lacaba and Neena for bringing up this topic. Do you think the fact that most salvage victims are dumped in and later fished from rivers, the way that certain objects are salvaged from sunken ships, could have contributed to this change of meaning? I read somewhere that this could be so, as journalists often had to write in their reports, “The victim’s body was salvaged from the Pasig River”, so this could have later led to attributing salvage to the act of killing instead of the act of recovering a corpse.


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