The end of Filipino time?

Last Saturday I spent a fascinating morning at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, home of the Prime Meridian of the World, Longitude 000° 00′ 00″.

Our shadows on the Prime Meridian

Our shadows on the Prime Meridian

I was taken back to a time before atomic clocks or quartz watches or global positioning systems, when survival at sea depended entirely on one’s ability to determine east-west position by calculating the time difference between Greenwich and one’s current location. Accurate timekeeping for navigation was a major preoccupation for some of the leading scientists and engineers of the day, and it wasn’t until John Harrison’s marine chronometer that the longitude problem was finally solved.

The Greenwich Time Ball on top of Flamsteed House

The Greenwich Time Ball on top of Flamsteed House

Nowadays, finding out the exact time takes nothing more than a glance at a watch face or a cellphone screen. Our personal and working lives are ruled by our timekeeping devices, and this is reflected by the many expressions in our languages that involve the concept of time. In English, for example:

on the value of time: time is gold, time is precious, time is money

on the power of time: time heals all wounds, only time will tell

Time expressions in English

Time expressions in English

And yet it is also true that different cultures have different perceptions of time and punctuality: what counts as fashionable lateness in one country is gross disrespect in another. I myself tend to measure the punctuality of a nation through the punctuality of its urban buses. German buses are punctual to the very last second, while Italian buses just arrive whenever they want, timetable be damned. As for Filipino buses? Filipino buses follow Filipino time.

What is Filipino time? The Anvil-Macquarie Philippine English Dictionary gives the following definition:

Filipino time, n. Philippine English Informal a time system in which people expect that everyone will be late in keeping appointments, schedules, etc. (opposed to American time).

Anvil-Macquarie Philippine English Dictionary for High School

Let me give an example. If you are going to have a party and you want everyone to come at 9:00 pm, real time, then you should invite them to do so at 8:00 pm or even earlier, because that is how real time translates to Filipino time.

Indeed, tardiness is so entrenched in Filipino culture that making people wait is even considered a mark of privilege. In the Philippines, it is absolutely normal, even expected, for a ceremony to start hours later than planned, especially if someone important is giving a speech. And with the hopeless traffic congestion in cities such as Metro Manila, even the most time-conscious of individuals sometimes cannot help but be late.

There is a widespread belief that we got our lax timekeeping from the Spanish, and indeed, Spain and Latin American nations seem to share our laissez-faire attitude towards time and punctuality. I will not go as far as blame Spain for our tardiness, but what I will say is that Spanish has had a very strong influence on the linguistic expression of time in the Philippines. The very word for time in Tagalog is oras, from the Spanish hora. We divide time into hours (oras, from Sp. hora), minutes (minuto, from Sp. minuto) and seconds (segundo, from Sp. segundo). Our words for watch and clock also come from Spanish: relos (watch) is from reloj, while orasan (clock) is derived from hora. If we’re not telling time in English, we’re doing it in Spanish:

Anong oras na? Ten o’clock na ba?

A las diyes na. Ay, wait di pala. A las diyes y medya na.

Talaga? Bakit sa relos ko menos kinse pa lang! Pano naging ten thirty?

What time is it? Is it ten o’clock?

It’s ten o’clock. Oh no, wait, it’s not. It’s half-past ten.

Really? On my watch it’s only a quarter to ten! How can it be half-past?

The above exchange also illustrates another reason behind Filipino time: our timepieces are just not synchronized. In Philippine English, we have even invented our own way of describing a watch or clock that is literally ahead of its time:

advanced, adj. 3. Philippine English Informal (of a watch, clock, etc.) fast: My watch is advanced.

Anvil-Macquarie Philippine English Dictionary for High School 

I was very surprised to find, on the very evening of my visit to the birthplace of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), that in this age of atomic clocks with accuracy to about one second in 20 million years, the Philippines still did not have a strictly enforced standard time. It was only this month when the President finally signed a law requiring all government offices and television and radio stations to synchronize their time with Philippine Standard Time (PST), which is eight hours ahead of GMT. Republic Act 10535 also designates PAGASA as the country’s official timekeeper, and prescribes stiff fines and penalties for private radio and television stations that fail to calibrate their timekeeping devices according to PST.

The new law is scheduled to take effect on June 1. Will this day mark the end of Filipino time?

Only time will tell.

What can the first Filipino novel tell us about Tagalog, Spanish and English vocabulary?

Ninay Book Cover

Nine years ago I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Nínay: Costumbres filipinas, the novel considered to be the first to ever be written by a Filipino. I looked at certain characteristics of the novel and argued that it owed a lot to a Spanish literary trend called costumbrismo, which flourished in Spain in the 19th century. Costumbrista literature, which counts such authors as Serafín Estébanez Calderón, Ramón de Mesonero Romanos and Mariano José de Larra among its leading figures, is characterized by satiric, moralizing works full of folkloric detail.

Reading Nínay was not an altogether pleasant experience. Many critics consider the novel a failure as a literary work, and I am inclined to agree with them. This is no Noli Me Tangere or El Filibusterismo: the plot is so convoluted and preposterous it can rival any of our current primetime teleseryes, and its author gave more attention to painting local color than to fleshing out its characters, which were reduced to stereotypes.

In many ways, Nínay can be seen as a European novel. Not only does it follow Spanish costumbrista models, it was written and published in Madrid, in the Spanish language. But Nínay can also be viewed as a quintessentially Filipino novel. It was written by a Filipino (the writer, politician and notorious balimbing Pedro Alejandro Paterno); it has Filipino characters in Filipino settings; it has extensive, minutely detailed, loving descriptions of Filipino places, plants, animals, dress, food, art, language and customs. It has several long footnotes on various aspects of local life, and quotes from 16th to 18th century works on the Philippines, in Spanish and French. It even includes, as an appendix, a lengthy essay on Philippine pre-Hispanic civilization.

Nínay‘s weak, soap-operatic story merely serves as framework for the description of Philippine life and culture of the period. The novel is an exaltation of indigenous traditions, and has the dual objective of documenting native customs threatened by great social change, and of correcting distorted perceptions of the Philippines as an uncivilized, culturally backward colony in the tropics. These objectives are shared by Spanish costumbrista writers, who also lived during a time of social upheaval in Spain, and who saw their country viewed by the rest of the world principally through existing Spanish stereotypes.

I enjoyed writing the thesis more than reading the novel, and for my efforts I got my first journal publication (which is available here), and a shiny medal on graduation day that made me think for the first time that this research thing was something I could actually do.

Years later, I did get into research, but in language and not literature. My main working language shifted back to English from Spanish. It really seemed that I had closed the book on the study of Filhispanic literature, both literally and figuratively. That was what I thought, until I got an invitation to give a paper at the inaugural colloquium of a new research network in Oxford, Translations in Transnational Contexts, which involved scholars working in different aspects of translation that crossed national, geographical, linguistic and cultural boundaries. I saw this as the perfect opportunity to revisit my old friend Nínay, whose namesake novel is a prime example of transnational literature. This time, I was going to look at the novel from a lexical perspective, and see how translating concepts from one culture to another culture’s language aids processes of word formation.

Searching the novel for lexical riches proved to be more rewarding than looking for its literary value. From the very first chapter, Nínay gave me valuable insight on three different kinds of vocabulary. First, there are Spanish words that have made it into the Tagalog lexicon. We all know that a large percentage of Tagalog words (some even say up to 75%) are of Spanish origin, and several of them crop up in the first Filipino novel.

And then there are the Tagalog words that have made it into Spanish vocabulary. We get very excited when we see words of Filipino origin in famous English dictionaries such as the OED and Websters, but what we are less aware of is the fact that the Philippines had made its mark on another language and another dictionary long before any of these English dictionaries even existed: the Diccionario de la lengua española de la Real Academia Española (DRAE). Nínay has a number of words of Tagalog origin that are documented in the DRAE, several of which Paterno himself checked against the 12th edition of 1884 (the first edition came out in 1780).

Dicc RAE 1780

As can be expected, there are the usual borrowings of flora and fauna terms (jusi, nipa, sampaguita, santol, etc.), but there are also some very surprising entries:

1. m. Filip. huracán (‖ viento a modo de torbellino).

(De or. tagalo).
1. adj. Filip. niño (‖ que está en la niñez).
2. m. Filip. Criado joven.

1. m. Filip. Fideo hecho de harina de arroz.

(Del tagalo salakót).
1. m. Sombrero usado en Filipinas y otros países cálidos, en forma de medio elipsoide o de casquete esférico, a veces ceñido a la cabeza con un aro distante de los bordes para dejar circular el aire, y hecho de un tejido de tiras de caña, o de otras materias.

Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, 22nd ed.

And my favorite:
1. m. Vasija filipina hecha con la cáscara interior y durísima del coco.

Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, 22nd ed.

Paterno even uses the verb tabear:

Por varios sitios , á la sombra de los cañaverales, vense grupos juguetones de dalagas de mórbidas formas, sumergiéndose en las ondas, ya levantando espumas con sus pies al nadar, ya formando cascadas al tabearse…

Nínay: Costumbres filipinas, p. 60

This is accompanied by an explanatory footnote on the same page:

Tabear. Verter agua sobre la cabeza con el tabo.
Tabo, m. Vasija filipina hecha con la cáscara interior y durísima del coco. (Dic. de la Acad. Esp., 1884.)

Nínay: Costumbres filipinas, p. 60

And then there is this word, which originated from a Spanish word, was Tagalized, and then made its way back into Spanish:

(Der. tagalo de batea).
1. m. Filip. Especie de terraza o balcón de madera o bambú, sin techo, situado en la trasera de las casas, donde se guardan los útiles de lavar.

Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, 22nd ed.

I also noticed some Spanish words that have undergone semantic change and taken on a new meaning in the Philippines.

Common Spanish meaning:
1. adj. Que abraza.
Filipino meaning:
3. m. Especie de almohada de forma cilíndrica que se usa en Filipinas para dormir con mayor comodidad, y que protege tanto del calor como del frío según la postura que el cuerpo adopte al abrazarse a ella.

(Del part. de caer).
Common Spanish meaning:
1. adj. Desfallecido, amilanado.
Filipino meaning:
19. f. Filip. p. us. Galería interior de las casas de Manila.

Common Spanish meanings:
1. f. Asiento de madera, sin respaldo y a modo de mesa baja.
2. f. Conjunto de entidades que tienen por objeto básico facilitar la financiación de las distintas actividades económicas.
Filipino meaning:
7. f. Embarcación pequeña usada en Filipinas.

Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, 22nd ed.

Finally and more fascinatingly, Nínay also includes Tagalog words that have made into English vocabulary through Spanish. The examples I give here are still used in contemporary Philippine English and are in fact included in the OED:

casco, n.
Etymology: < Spanish casco hull, hulk.
b. A kind of boat used at Manila in lading and unlading ships.

jusi, n.
Pronunciation: /ˈhuːsiː/
Forms: Also husi, jussi.
Etymology: < Spanish jusi, < Tagalog husi.
A delicate fibrous fabric woven in the Philippine Islands.
1851 Illustr. Catal. Great Exhib. iv. 1344/1 Piece of ‘jusi’, and a shawl of ‘jusi’.

sampaguita, n.
Pronunciation: /sæmpəˈɡiːtə/
Etymology: < Filipino Spanish sampaguita, diminutive of Tagalog sampaga Arabian jasmine.
A local name in the Philippines for the Arabian jasmine, Jasminum sambac; the flowers of this tree.
1902 Encycl. Brit. XXXI. 667/1 Valuable essential oils are obtained from the flowers of the ilangilang, sampaguita, and champaca.

Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed.

Nínay is particularly interesting for lexical research because of the level of detail the author offers about many of the local terms he employs. This wealth of information not only gives a clear indication of the exact meaning of words, but can also help in dating reciprocal borrowings between Spanish, Tagalog and Philippine English.

Most research now on Filhispanic literature is done from a literary perspective, but we see now that it can also be useful for lexical investigations. In the future, it would be interesting to look at the Tagalog and English translations of Nínay (which came out in 1906 and 1907, respectively) to see how the novel’s depictions of local culture and traditions have been rendered in two such disparate languages. And this also makes me wonder: what can Rizal tell us about the evolution of our vocabulary? How about the other Propagandists? And how about the writers of the Golden Age of Filhispanic Literature: Claro M. Recto, Jesús Balmori, Cecilio Apóstol, Evangelina Guerrero?

This experience also made me realize the value of interdisciplinary research networks. By participating in this colloquium, I learned about, among many other things, the translation of Franco-British military medicine in the 18th century, transcultural architecture in Goa, the politics of translation in Napoleonic France, the translation of Spanish Golden Age Drama into English: topics that I would not have known anything about in my little applied linguistics bubble. It also made me consider my own work from a point of view that I had thought irrelevant, and in so doing led me down a promising new research path.

Kakabakaba ka ba en español

They’re showing Mike de Leon’s classic 1980 film Kakabakaba Ka Ba? at Casa Asia in Barcelona this Saturday, as one of a two-part, sixteen-film cycle on Philippine  cinema. As the Casa Asia website states, this is probably the longest such program of Filipino films ever held in Spain. If you’re lucky enough to be in lovely Barcelona between now and May 18, and from September 14 to November 30, do go to Casa Asia for masterpieces by such greats as Mike de Leon and Lino Brocka, in the original version with subtitles in Spanish.

Go to the Casa Asia website for more details.

The translator in me marvels at the translations of the Tagalog titles into Spanish. Maynila, Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, shown two weeks ago, is Maynila en la gran ciudad, while Kakabakaba Ka Ba? is ¿Cómo late tu corazón?

An Exit Interview With the Man Who Transformed the Oxford English Dictionary

OED Chief Editor John Simpson is retiring. I know him as the cool guy who gave me an OED yo-yo last Christmas, which he thought I’d like because the word yo-yo probably comes from a Philippine language.

yo-yo, n.

Pronunciation:   /ˈjəʊjəʊ/
Etymology:  Origin uncertain, but probably from one of the Philippines languages.
1. a. Also Yo-Yo. A proprietary name for a toy in the form of two conjoined cones or discs with a deep groove between them in which a string is attached and wound, its free end being held so that the toy can be made to fall under its own weight and rise again by its momentum.
1915   Philippine Craftsman Dec. 363   Sumpit (blowgun), pana (arrow), and yo-yo, however, are names very generally used throughout the islands.

Unrevised OED entry, first published 1986.



In 1857, the Oxford English Dictionary was just a sparkle in the eyes of some English gents who thought the current dictionaries weren’t up to snuff. Today, the OED is a vast, searchable database that tells the story of human history through a constantly expanding survey of the words we use. And the man who has led this remarkable print-to-digital transformation is retiring.

John Simpson began working at OED in 1976. The young index-card-shuffling assistant demonstrated a real way with words: in 1993, he was named Chief Editor—only the seventh in the dictionary’s long and storied history. On Wednesday, the 59-year-old announced that he would, in six months time, close the book on his career. TIME talked to the England-based lexicographer about how technology changed the dictionary business, how his profession is misunderstood, and what the word magazine has to do with the Spanish Armada.

So how are you feeling…

View original post 1,279 more words

Nagsampalan, nag-text-an, nag-I love you-han: Reciprocity and code-switching in Tagalog

Full disclosure: I am a big fan of Be Careful with My Heart. I started watching the show when I was in Manila in January, and I brought the habit back with me to Oxford. The television shows I watch usually involve terrorists, drug dealers and serial killers, so this show is a welcome break from all of that darkness and violence. There is something about it that is just so Filipino, so innocent and so fun; I find it really engaging.

The show dropped a bombshell this Friday when the preview for Monday showed the lead characters finally saying those three magic words to each other.

As can be expected, this set off a huge fan reaction. My mother weighed in with a rant:

Ano ba yan! Nagulat ako kanina biglang nagsigawan ang mga kapitbahay! Akala ko kung ano na nangyari, yun pala nag-I love you-han lang sina Maya at Ser Chief!

The excitement wasn’t limited to my neighborhood; Twitter and Facebook were abuzz with anticipation. Here’s a Facebook commenter’s take:

Naku! Nakakakilig talaga ang I love you-han nila!

Quite apart from what they are about (which is awesome, I’m counting the minutes until Monday), these comments are fascinating in that they feature these constructions:

nag-I love you-han

I love you-han

These words perfectly show just how code-switching to English works in Tagalog, and how English words (in this case, a whole English phrase) are accommodated within the morphosyntactic framework of Tagalog.

In Tagalog, the mag/nag-…-han morphemes serve as markers of reciprocity, meaning that the participants in an action have the dual role of patient and agent with respect to each other:

Nagsampalan at nagsabunutan sina Celine at Margaux.

Many languages have special grammatical markers to indicate reciprocity. Spanish, for example, uses the reflexive pronoun se to signal a reciprocal action:

Celine y Margaux se pegaron y se tiraron del pelo.

English does not have a special marker of reciprocity, and thus makes use of phrases such as each other and one another to express this meaning:

Celine and Margaux slapped each other in the face and pulled one another’s hair.

Tagalog, in contrast, has not one but multiple ways of morphologically conveying reciprocity, as shown by the following sentences:

Hindi ko siya papansinin kahit magsalubong kami sa daan.
I won’t pay attention to him even if we bump into each other on the street.

Halos magkatulakan kami sa hagdan sa sobrang pagmamadali.
We almost pushed each other down the stairs in our haste.

Pinaglalapit yata tayo ng tadhana.
Destiny may be bringing us closer to each other.

Itay, hindi ninyo kami mapaglalayo! Nagmamahalan kami!
Father, you cannot keep us apart! We love each other!

This particular characteristic of Tagalog results in an economy of expression that is difficult to achieve in English:

Nagdemandahan ang dalawang artista.
The two actors each filed a court case against the other.

Some linguists believe that code-switching is only possible with free morphemes, but Tagalog-English code-switching proves this false with the frequent affixation of English words with Tagalog bound morphemes, including the mag/nag-…-han reciprocity markers:

Anong oras ka ba darating mamaya?
Di pa ko sure, mag-text-an na lang tayo.
What time are you arriving later?
I’m not yet sure, let’s just text each other.

Nood tayo ng sine mamaya, ang tagal na nating hindi nakakapagbondingan.
Let’s go to the movies later, it’s been a while since we last spent time with each other.

And as can be seen from our first examples, even whole English sentences can be transformed into Tagalog verbs through morphological affixation. They can also be nominalized, reduplicated, and basically be made to do what any other Tagalog verb can do.

Narinig mo ba ang tsismis? Nag-I love you-han na daw sina Ser Chief at Maya!

Mag-I-I-love you-han na ba talaga sila o baka panaginip lang?

Excited na akong mapanood ang i love you-han nila!

Sasabihin mo saking hindi mo boyfriend yan eh I love you-han na kayo nang I love you-han sa text! (I actually heard somebody say this a few years back)

Magsitigil nga kayo. May I love you-han I love you-han pa kayong nalalaman!

As creatively delightful as these constructions are, they also bring up a big spelling issue, which is, to put it simply: how on earth do you spell them? Do you use hyphens? Do you just squash all constituents together? Do you keep the English spelling? Do you transform everything to Tagalog? I chose to write nag-I love you-han for the purposes of this post, to make each element distinguishable, but I could easily have written it any of the following ways:

nag-i love you-han

It’s quite confusing now, but I’m sure we’ll figure out, the same way we figured out similar constructions from a much older colonial language:


In the meantime, let’s enjoy tomorrow’s I love you-han. I don’t know about you, but I’m setting my alarm at 7 am.

Video source: ABS-CBN News YouTube Channel

What is the OED and why do we want Philippine English to be in it?


Last weekend I went to the Oxford University Press bookshop on Oxford’s High Street for the first time. The first thing I saw as I entered the shop was the dictionary section, which was right by the door on the left-hand side. I’d never seen so many Oxford dictionaries together in one place, and at that moment I was struck by the sheer number of them. Most of them had the distinctive blue color scheme, but they came in all shapes and sizes and catered for a wide variety of needs: there were huge hardbound volumes as well as handy paperback editions; there were shorter, concise, compact, little, mini, pocket versions; there were dictionaries for children, for students, for language learners; there were thesauri, dictionaries of usage, dictionaries of regional varieties, terminological dictionaries on a huge range of subjects; there were bilingual dictionaries for languages from Italian and Russian to Chinese and Swahili.

But high up on a top shelf were all twenty handsome, hardbound volumes of the latest print edition of the mother of them all, the Oxford English Dictionary, which everybody calls by its acronym, OED.

So what is the OED? What makes it different from all the other dictionaries published by OUP? And what’s so special about it that I’m dedicating years of my life to studying how Philippine English is represented in it, and trying to get more Philippine words and senses into it?

The main difference between the OED and most other Oxford dictionaries is that it is a historical dictionary, meaning that it is not only concerned with English as it is written and spoken today, but rather with the whole history of the language. This also means that unlike dictionaries of current English, the OED includes all core words and meanings in English, even those that are rare, archaic, historical, obsolete and technical. Meanings are listed in chronological order, from the earliest evidence of usage to the most recent. Once a word gets into the OED, it cannot be taken out: it becomes part of the historical record of the language. This makes the OED the ideal resource for studying the origin and development of thousands of English words.

A feature that sets the OED apart from the dictionaries that came before it is that it is based on evidence of actual usage. The 600,000 words in the dictionary are illustrated by around three million quotations taken from a wide variety of sources, from classic literature to newspapers, magazines and cookery books. Most of this massive amount of evidence were contributions from an enthusiastic public, volunteer readers who sent to Oxford masses and masses of quotation slips with interesting examples of how words are used.

Given the scope of its ambition, it is not at all surprising that the first edition of the OED took decades to complete. The dictionary was first conceived in the 1850s, years before our national hero, Jose Rizal, was born. It was the Victorian era in England; in the Philippines, we were still under Spanish rule. Spanish was then the language of prestige, and Filipinos of the period had no idea that in a few decades’ time we would be speaking and writing another European language, one that would be brought to our shores by a nascent world power in the Americas. It wasn’t until 1884 when the first fascicle, or installment, of the OED (then known as A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles), saw print. In 1898, the year the Philippines declared independence from Spain, OUP released two fascicles of the dictionary, containing words in the range Franklaw-germanizing, and the range H-hod. Thirty more years later, in 1928, the complete first edition was finally published. George V, Queen Elizabeth II’s grandfather, was on the throne in England; in the Philippines, we were under the authority of the US Bureau of Insular Affairs, and Filipino authors such as Paz Marquez Benitez and Jose Garcia Villa had just begun writing literary works in English.

Work on the OED did not cease with the completion of the first edition. In the decades that followed, supplements and additions to the dictionary were produced. The second edition of the OED, whose set of twenty volumes I so admired at the OUP bookshop, was released in 1989. It was the early years of the first Aquino administration, and I was five years old.

Now in its third edition, the OED continues to evolve and change, just like the language that it chronicles. Just as English is a living language, the OED is a living dictionary, one that is always ready to embrace the opportunities offered by modern technology. The digitalization of the OED began in the 1980s, culminating with the release of the OED CD-ROM in 1992, and finally, with the pioneering launch of OED Online in 2000. And it is not just the dictionary’s method of delivery that is keeping up with the changing times. The OED is currently undergoing its first root and branch revision since it was first published, and the results of this huge scholarly endeavor, the biggest humanities project in the world, is made available every quarter in OED Online. And as the OED updates its existing entries, it continues to add an endless stream of new words and senses.

There is no doubt that the OED is a monumental work of scholarship. But why exactly is it important for Philippine English to be a part of it? One reason is that for the OED to remain current and relevant, it has to acknowledge the changes that the English-speaking world has undergone since the OED was first proposed in the 1850s. English has gone beyond the countries where it is spoken as the sole native language, and has spread to many different parts of the globe where it is used for intra- and international communication along with a number of other local languages. As a dictionary that considers itself to be the ultimate historical record of the English language, the OED needs to, and is keen to, include more and more words from these World Englishes. Philippine English is just one of these vibrant new varieties of the language that make English a truly global tongue.

Another reason is that the addition of Philippine vocabulary items to such an esteemed lexicographical work such as the OED can aid in the legitimization of Philippine English as a variety in its own right. The inclusion of Philippine English words in the OED is an acknowledgment that this particular variety is as worthy of serious linguistic scholarship as older, more established varieties such as British and American English. Becoming part of the OED is a recognition of the role that Philippine English plays in the evolution of the language. Such recognition may also lead to the realization among Filipinos that the liberties that we take with English are not aberrations, but rather linguistic innovations that reflect our own cultural experience and contribute to the richness and diversity of English.

Advanced meetings and dirty rags: Philippine election words

Image: 'Philippines - Electioneering' Found on

Image: ‘Philippines – Electioneering’
Found on

A couple of weeks ago I had this brilliant idea of regularly watching The World Tonight, ANC’s daily English-language news program, to note down evidence of Filipino usage during the broadcast. At least, I thought it was a great idea at the time, and indeed a number of very interesting words and phrases crop up during every newscast. Yet what is good for my research is not always good for my sanity, as my brainwave came just when Philippine news was beginning to be dominated by the 2013 election campaign coverage. So every day for the past two weeks I have been witness to all the mudslinging, masa-pandering and gratuitous singing and dancing that prelude our every trip to the polls. I industriously wrote down words and watched with gritted teeth as disgraced politicians clawed their way back to government, as every ina, kapatid, anak, asawa, lolo, pinsan, atbp. staked their familial claim on our provinces and regions, as more deserving candidates got shoved to the background by those with more money and star power. The things I do for lexicography!

And yet there is no denying that election season has always been fertile ground for language study. Just as last year’s US presidential elections brought to the public consciousness such terms as air war, electoral college and Super Tuesday, this year’s Philippine midterm elections brought to my attention some very notable words that perfectly encapsulate the crazy, colorful circus that is our democratic process.

No list of election-related Filipinisms will be complete without them, so I might as well start with our very clever –able derivations. This year’s campaign period has offered us an endless parade of aspirants for several positions in the executive and legislative branches of government, or, as we know them, senatoriables, gubernatoriables and mayorables. And, in an even higher-stakes race happening in three years’ time, these candidates will be joined by presidentiables and vice-presidentiables. A full stable of –ables that, according to Filomeno V. Aguilar, Jr., began at the end of the Marcos era:

“In recent years, contenders for the presidency have become known as ‘presidentiables’, probably indicating the time when, just after the downfall of Marcos, it was not clear who could possibly be a replacement for such a strongman. Since no one seemed to match the talent, prowess, and everything about Marcos, the search for who could possibly become president led to the invention of the word ‘presidentiable’.”

Betting on democracy: Electoral ritual in the Philippine presidential campaign, in Chua Huat, B., ed. Elections and popular culture in Asia

My friend Benedict Bernabe works for B-Change Foundation and is an expert in development studies, and as such no stranger to political jargon. He’s also been one of my favorite friends for random linguistic discussions since our days as language majors at UP. So naturally I found myself talking about election words with him, and true to form, he came up with a very interesting observation. He saw these –able words as “symbolic of our desire to convey the most meaning in the least number of words. Much like pointing with our lips instead of giving directions verbally, Pinoys would rather say ‘gubernatoriables’ than ‘candidates for the position of governor’.” He also pointed out how these words are adjective in form but are in fact nouns in usage.

I know many people cringe at these formations, but I find them to be delightful examples of how people experiment with words, pulling them apart and putting them back together, playing with meaning and function and form to express different concepts. It is a universal tendency. In fact, Filipinos are not the only ones to use the word presidentiable, as both noun and adjective. The French do, too:

présidentiable, adjectif et nom
Qui est susceptible de se porter candidat à la présidence de la République, à une présidence.

So how can you find presidentiables and their ilk all gathered together in one place? By going to a miting de avance, of course. This is the Philippine English term for a big political rally, traditionally the last one before an election, the candidates’ final opportunity to convince voters to write their names on the ballot. But the following recent examples of the term’s usage in recent publications make them seem to be more public spectacle than political gathering:

“The miting de avance or final rally is an old ritual adapted to recent times. It is a meeting a party and its candidates hold just before election day, or on the evening of the last day of the official campaign period. The speeches are conventionalized, with the usual attacks on the opposing candidate, often delivered in a manner that elicits laughter from the mass of supporters. Political rallies, in this sense, constitute entertainment, but the crowd of supporters is also taken as an index of a candidate’s popularity and chances of electoral victory.”

Aguilar, Jr., F. V. Betting on democracy: Electoral ritual in the Philippine presidential campaign,in Chua Huat, B., ed. Elections and popular culture in Asia

“A Miting de Avance with POLITICIANS promising heaven to get votes: “If I win, I promise you, no family will go hungry during my term! No one will be a squatter in his own native land! Every Filipino will have a job! The Philippines will be heaven on earth.”

Cheers from the CROWD: “Dance, dance! Sing, sing!”

Jacob, M. L. &  Jacob, M. L. 20th Century: Two Plays

What I think is most striking about miting de avance is that it is a phrase that is Hispanic in form, ending with two words in Spanish, but beginning with an English word spelled the Tagalog way. The Spanish phrase literally translates to advanced meeting in English. The fact that meeting was borrowed into Spanish from English to mean a political meeting (spelled mitin), may be a possible reason for this curious hybridity.

And then there is the word trapo. I love this word. I am of the opinion that whoever thought of it is an unqualified genius, a wordsmith equal to Shakespeare (apparently, there is an ongoing debate over who actually invented the term: the good people of Sorsogon or columnist Tony Abaya—read all about it here). Consider the succinct beauty of the coinage: trapo fuses together the component words of the English phrase traditional politician, but the resulting blend is also the Tagalog word for a dirty old rag, which itself comes from a Spanish word still in current use:

trapo, n.
1. m. Pedazo de tela desechado.
2. m. Paño de uso doméstico para secar, limpiar, quitar el polvo, etc.

Diccionario de la Real Academia Española

Trapo, according to Charlie Pye-Smith, “is used to define a system which relies on patronage, feudalism, and the old boy network.” Smita Lahiri describes the word as “a colloquialism that handily condenses all the underhandedness, ruthlessness, and amorality associated with the realm of electoral politics in this country.” I have to agree with Ms. Lahiri’s assessment. Trapo is not only a convenient contraction, it is also a vivid, highly effective metaphor that likens a corrupt politician to a filthy, disposable scrap of cloth, good for nothing more than wiping off dirt. And just like miting de avance, it’s a word that combines Tagalog, English and Spanish influences. It is a word that distills centuries of Philippine political, cultural and linguistic history into five letters.

And finally, what trait seems to be lacking in most of our politicians nowadays? Delicadeza. This is another Spanish borrowing, and it can be directly translated to English as tact. However, in Philippine English, the word is infused with notions of decency and honor that goes way beyond the word’s original meaning.The Anvil-Macquarie Dictionary of Philippine English for High School sums it up best in its entry for delicadeza, which is also a very good example of how a dictionary can be an unlikely source of pithy social observations:

delicadeza, n.
A sense of decency and knowing how to behave with dignity.
NOTE This is considered to be an important value that present-day Filipinos are thought to have lost. It is used mainly with reference to corrupt politicians who, after being found out, still don’t resign from their position.

Anvil-Macquarie Dictionary of Philippine English for High School

But with elections only mere weeks away, who has time for that?

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.


As someone with a lifelong fascination with words, I feel fortunate for two things. First, that I was born in the Philippines, a country whose rich indigenous heritage and colorful colonial past are reflected in the multiplicity of its languages. I grew up in a society where multilingualism is a way of life, and this has given me a profound appreciation for cultural and linguistic diversity, as well as a wider perspective on how different languages work.

All this has served me well in my career as an applied linguist, a career that has led me to specialize in lexicography—the science of dictionary making—and eventually to a postdoctoral position at Oxford University. And this job is the other thing I feel lucky to have, as it enables me to actually make a living out of doing something I feel passionate about: studying English words and how Filipinos use them.

As a research fellow in lexicography, my work involves the identification and analysis of words that characterize the Philippine variety of English. I am a member of the English Faculty and of Hertford College, but I also do part of my research at the dictionary section of Oxford University Press (OUP), one of the world’s leading publishers of English dictionaries, and home of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a historical dictionary widely considered to be the foremost authority on the English language.

Another important dimension of my research project is the study of how Philippine English is represented in the OED. At OUP, I use Oxford Dictionaries’ tools and databases to investigate words and meanings of Philippine origin that are not yet in the OED, so that those that meet the dictionary’s selection criteria may be considered for inclusion. In addition, I analyze existing OED entries in order to trace the historical evolution of Philippine English words. Working at Oxford Dictionaries also gives me the opportunity to observe the practical realities of such a huge lexicographical endeavor as the OED, at a very interesting point in its history, as the dictionary is currently undergoing its first comprehensive revision since it first saw print in 1884.

I achieve my research results through the usual linguistic methods: analyzing digital language corpora, reading Philippine literature in English, consulting paper and online regional dictionaries and previous surveys of the Philippine English lexicon. However, a brief visit to the Philippines early this year made me realize the potential of another research source: the Filipino people themselves. Like most human beings, Pinoys love to talk about the way they talk. After a Rappler feature on my OED work, I received not only a very positive response, but also a lot of very useful suggestions from Filipinos who had read it. This reaction should not have surprised me—after all, the OED would not be the dictionary it is today if not for the contributions of the British public throughout the years. This blog is a way for me to tap an immensely valuable resource and include public input in my research. This blog’s comments section will always be open to your polite suggestions.

Multilingualism enriches a culture, but it also gives rise to a number of very thorny issues. Questions of national and regional identity, educational policy, language politics: all these have hounded us since the very early days of the Filipino nation. What really is a national language? What language should we use to educate our children? In which language should Filipino literature be written? Is English really ours now, or are we still borrowing it from the Americans? There are no simple, black-and-white answers to these questions, but that is all the more reason for us to engage in intelligent discussion about them, and this blog aims to be a venue for such discussion.

I will also be writing about words I am working on, articles I am writing, and books I am reading. You can expect posts about the OED, and my work at Oxford University, as well as interesting articles on dictionaries, languages and linguistics. But most of all, I will be sharing my thoughts on Pinoys and their words.