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 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.

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

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.

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.