Using the OED to trace the origins of the Philippine English lexicon


With Rajend Mesthrie

In mid-June I found myself celebrating Independence Day by reading a paper on Philippine English at the Changing English: Contacts and Variation conference at the University of Helsinki in Finland. In the photo above, I am with South African linguist Rajend Mesthrie, one of the plenary speakers of the conference. We had just gotten off the ferry at Suomenlinna, the breathtaking island venue of the conference dinner.


Helsinki sunset from the Suomenlinna ferry

It was nice to meet Rajend that day, as I was about to quote him extensively in the presentation I was to give the next morning (which he was kind enough to attend). in an article he published in 2003, he observed that much research in World Englishes was based on comparisons between contemporary World English corpora and either a British or American corpus. This observation definitely applies to lexical studies on Philippine English: linguists who wish to find out if a word is indeed a Philippine English word usually consult a digitally stored collection of texts written by Filipino authors, and a similar compilation of texts written in the British or American standard. If the word appears in the former and not in the latter, this is taken as evidence that the word is a Filipino coinage or meaning extension. However, Rajend Mesthrie’s article questions whether contemporary UK/US English is always the relevant variety for making such comparisons.

In the same article, Rajend cited a study by a another linguist named Jim Davy, who used the Oxford English Dictionary to show that several lexical and grammatical features of African English actually have a long history in British English. This inspired me look at the OED not only as an object of research but also as a data source for enriching my study of the Philippine English lexicon. And indeed, by following Jim Davy’s methodology I found several words that are widely considered to be uniquely or originally Filipino but are in the OED with totally different origins than I expected. The following are just ten of the examples that I gave in my talk:

1. air-con. Apart from being just Filipino, this abbreviation of air conditioning is also quite British. It dates back to the 70s and is used in British contexts until today, both as a noun and an adjective.

air-con, n. and adj. orig. Brit.

A. n. = air conditioning n.

1970 Guardian 12 Dec. 11/3 Small hotels..offer..air con and shower attached for £3.15. 1987 Courier-Mail (Brisbane) 12 July (Weekend Suppl.) 12/7 The ‘air-con’ and the rear toilet make the nine-hour trip tolerably comfortable, though not up to Western tourist standards. 1999 T. Parsons Man & Boy (2000) xi. 97, I..saw her front of the TV in some little apartment, the air-con turned up to full blast. 2006 Independent on Sunday (Nexis) 20 Aug. 49 More importantly, Teslas come fully equipped with air con and heated seats.

B. adj. = air-conditioned adj.

1983 Financial Times (Nexis) 17 Sept. i. 12 All ‘air-con’ berths in first class were booked. 2004 Farang May 63/4 There’s also an air-con ‘microbus’ service.

New entry from OED Third Edition, added March 2008

2. awardee. This word is originally American, with quotations dating back to 1873, appearing in American publications in succeeding decades until as recently as 2005.

awardee, n. orig. U.S.

The recipient of an award; a person to whom a grant or scholarship is given.

1873 Athens (Ohio) Messenger 3 July 3/1 The first premium for carriage horses was also donated by the awardee, Mr James D. Brown, to the Society. 1901 Columbia Law Rev. 1 213 The Secretary of the Treasury was authorized to awardees showing the proportions to which they were entitled. 1959 Odessa (Texas) American 7 June 12/3 The awardees were selected from 150 applicants on the basis of significance of their projects. 1989 Times 21 Oct. 11/4 The television presentation of the British Fashion Awards showed us one of the awardees..offering to shake hands with her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales with his other hand stuck in his trousers pocket. 2005 Desert Sun (Palm Springs, Calif.) (Nexis) 16 Nov. 1 b, In past festivals, awardees have been among Hollywood’s biggest names.

New entry from OED Third Edition, added June 2006

3. ballpen. This shortened form of ballpoint pen is in the OED as a compound of ball. Ball entered the dictionary in 1885, three years before the first patent for a ballpoint pen was first issued, so this compound was obviously added to the entry later. The earliest quotation is 1946, and there is evidence as recent as 2001.

ball, n.1


ball pen n. = ball-point pen n.

1946 Esquire Nov. 155 Biro who introduced the first ball-pen presents..a sensational new invention. 1958 Times 2 June p. vi/3 Gas is the manufacture of familiar articles such as ball pens, aircraft engines, [etc.]. 2001 French Rev. 5 892 The ball pen and pencil remain the vehicle for note- taking.

4. blowout. The Anvil-Macquarie Dictionary of Philippine English for High School by Bautista and Butler defines this noun as a treat, such as a dinner at a restaurant, given for a number of friends or colleagues in celebration of an event such as gaining promotion or closing a deal. It can be seen that sense number 2 of blowout in the OED is very close to the Philippine meaning, and it dates back to 1823, to a work by Sir Walter Scott.

blow-out, n.

2. A dinner, supper, or other entertainment for which an abundant supply of food and drink is provided or at which it is consumed; a ‘feast’ or ‘feed’. colloq.

1823 Scott St. Ronan’s Well III. vii. 193 ‘She sent me a card for her blow-out,’ said Mowbray; ‘and so I am resolved to go.’ 1840 R. H. Dana Two Years before Mast xxvi. 87 They had a grand blow-out, and..drank in the forecastle, a barrel of gin. 1856 F. E. Paget Owlet of Owlstone Edge 174 Such a jolly blow-out as there was when the Bishop was here. 1930 R. Lehmann Note in Music vii. 264 Have a nice blowout and a good sleep afterwards. 1966 ‘J. Hackston’ Father clears Out 172 Saint’s menu in between such blood- building blowouts was rabbit, with pollard as a savoury.

Entry from 1933 Supplement to the OED, not fully updated

5. brown-out. As I was growing up I was made to believe that what Americans called black-out, we Filipinos call brown-out, since we originally extended the word’s meaning of “a drop in voltage” to “a power outage”. OED evidence proves that that meaning extension also happened in US and Australian English, starting in wartime 1940s, when such power outages were common.

brown-out, n.

Chiefly Austral. and N. Amer.

A partial black-out. Also transf. and fig.

1942 in Amer. Speech (1945) 20 143/1 Brown-out..used in Australia to denote semidarkening a city as distinguished from the complete darkening of a blackout. 1943 Amer. Speech (1944) 19 149/1 The suggested conservation measures for electricity involve a national brownout, the extinguishing of all ornamental and display lighting and signs after 10 p.m. 1950  N.Y. Herald 18 Feb., New York Brownout is Ordered as Coal Dwindles. 1955  Times 4 May 10/4 The new ‘brown-out’ on information in Washington. 1969  Daily Colonist (Victoria, Brit. Columbia) 6 Dec. 23/1 Premier Bennett..was asked why the government found it necessary to route the transmission [line] through the park. He said:..‘It is to prevent brown outs.’

Entry from 1972 Supplement to the OED, not fully updated

6. cockfighter. Filipinos love cockfighting but according to the OED, we were not the first ones to give a name to the person who is into the sport. A certain N. Bailey used the word cockfighter as early as 1721, and the word has been in the dictionary since 1891.

cockfighter, n.

a. One who promotes the sport of cock-fighting; = cocker n.2 2.

1721 N. Bailey Universal Etymol. Eng. Dict. at Clear Walk, With Cock-fighters. 1789 W. Cowper (title) , The Cock-fighter’s garland. 1884 T. H. Gore in Law Times 8 Nov. 28/2 The licensing justices..refused to renew a licence to a cockfighter.

b. cock fighter = chief or champion fighter: see cock n.1 Compounds 2.

Entry from OED First Edition (1891), not fully updated

7. comfort room. This word is a typically Philippine English term for restroom, frequently abbreviated to CR. The OED entry for comfort includes a reference to an early 20th century American genteelism for a public lavatory: comfort station or comfort room. These compounds were of widespread use during the early years of the American occupation of the Philippines and gives an indication of when the term may have been picked up by Filipinos. The last quotation is from 1967, but the entry is not updated. I looked up the expression in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE), and a large majority of occurrences is of Philippine origin. Even the examples marked Indian or American or British because of their URL were actually written by Filipinos. So comfort room seems like a good example of an archaic usage in American English preserved in contemporary Philippine English.

comfort, n.


Comb., as comfort-killing, comfort-seeking adjs. comfort station n. U.S. Genteelism a public lavatory.

[1910 Aurora (Illinois) Daily Beacon 8 Sept. 6/1 A public comfort room..would pay the city of Aurora a profit every year.] 1923 Glass (Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co.) 167 (heading) Public comfort stations.  1931 T. Wilder Long Christmas Dinner 121 Ma, where is the next comfort-station. 1947 W. H. Auden Age of Anxiety (1948) ii. 53 Ingenious George reached his journey’s end Killed by a cop in a comfort station. 1957 D. Karp Leave me Alone xii. 165 Snatching Jimmy’s hand she trudged across the sand with him to the comfort station. 1967 R. Shaw Man in Glass Booth xvii. 152 ‘Wash-room,’ said the old man. ‘Comfort station.’

Entry from OED First Edition (1891), not fully updated

8. jubilarian. This word is quite archaic in general English, although the OED does not label it as such, since the entry has not yet been revised. It dates back to 1782.

jubilarian, n.

One who celebrates his or her jubilee; spec. in R.C. Church, a priest, monk, or nun who has been such for fifty years.

1782 in A. Mary Sharp Hist. Ufton Court (1892) 233 May 13th 1782 died age 79 the Rev. F. Saward Madew, O.S.F. a jubilarian, many years missionary at Ufton Court. 1882 H. Foley Rec. Eng. Prov. S.J. VII. 106 A jubilarian in religion, in the priesthood and in the mission. 1890 Catholic News 3 May 7/3 We have now three ‘jubilarians’ who have completed 50 years and over as professed nuns.

Entry from OED First Edition (1901), not fully updated

9. province. Researchers on Philippine English agree that the use of this word to mean any place outside of Manila is a meaning adaptation specific to Philippine usage, and explain that such a usage is out of context in the US, where a political boundary called province does not exist. The usage is also linked to the city-province dichotomy ingrained in Manila-centric Philippine culture. But it is obvious from the history of the word as narrated by the OED quotations that this very sense of “a place outside a country’s capital” is a meaning that has been in the English language since the 17th century. The OED has evidence of the sense for every century from then on until 1991.

province, n.

6. In pl. Chiefly with the. The parts of a country outside the capital or chief seat of government. Sometimes with negative connotations of a lack of culture or sophistication. Cf. provincial adj. 6.

1638 R. Baker tr. J. L. G. de Balzac New Epist. III. 31 In this shall finde..this sweete ayre of the wide world, and these dainties of the spirit, which are not common in our Provinces [Fr. nos Provinces]. 1789 Ann. Agric. 11 293 All the animation, vigour, life, and energy of luxury, consumption, and industry, which flow with a full tide through this kingdom, wherever there is a free communication between the capital and the provinces. a1845 S. Smith Elem. Sketches Moral Philos. (1850) xii. 168 Those opinions go down by the mail-coach, to regulate all matters of taste for the provinces. 1874 L. Stephen Hours in Libr. 1st Ser. vi. 341 The provinces differ from Paris in the nature of the social warfare. 1882 C. Pebody Eng. Journalism xii. 88 In the provinces, as in London, Liberal journalists outnumber the Conservatives. 1919 J. Reed Ten Days that shook World i. 13 Young ladies from the provinces came up to the capital to learn French. 1970 J. G. Farrell Troubles i. 118 The Major wouldn’t be interested in all this dull tattle from the provinces since he was in London at the very centre of things. 1991 Investors Chron. 26 July 65/3 Supposedly loyal workers were seduced and suddenly upped and offed to the new megafirms which were mushrooming both in the City and the provinces.

Entry from OED First Edition, updated September 2007

10. studentry. The use of this word to refer to a body of students has been an OED entry since 1919, and its first quotation dates back to 1830. It is now quite rare in English in general, but not as much as in Philippine English. More than a coinage, I would classify this as a preservation of a meaning that has died out in other varieties of English.

studentry, n. rare.

Students collectively; a body of students.

1830 W. Taylor Hist. Surv. German Poetry III. 170 Here was..a considerable population to observe, and a manlier studentry to mingle with: and Schiller began to question many of his former points of view. 1853 C. Kingsley Hypatia II. i. 4 The huge broad blade, at the ominous brown stains of which the studentry recoiled.

Entry from OED First Edition (1919), not fully updated

These examples show the importance of taking historical data into account in the study of the features not only of Philippine English but also of other World Englishes. However, this kind of information into World English research is complicated by the comparatively short publishing history of most postcolonial varieties of English. The limited evidence available can be supplemented by sources usually consulted by historians rather than linguists: letters, diaries, archival materials, etc. For the study of lexis, the Oxford English Dictionary can be a particularly valuable resource.

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.


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.