So you know your Singlish and the difference between lah, leh and lor? Come, I clap for you.
A huge part of Singaporean identity (besides chicken rice) is our own language. We’re talking about Singlish. Bottom line is, Singlish is a truly peculiar ‘language’. We use Singlish when we order coffee at hawker centres and even at cafes when we mingle with our friends. We’ve decoded some of the essentials, so you know what it means when someone accuses you of being kaypoh…
Singlish 101: 29 Singlish words and phrases you need to know
What it means: Eh is basically how you address people or get their attention.
Example: You would ask a colleague “Eh, wanna have lunch?” or call a friend to ask “Eh, would you like to gym later?” or even text your brother “Eh, I’m not coming home for dinner tonight.”
What it means: A suffix used to place emphasis on the sentence or word before.
Example: “Don’t worry about it lah!” Or, get used to hearing “Out of stock lah.”
Leh and Lor
Lah is easy enough to master, but leh and lor? Not so much.
What it means: Use leh when you’re not sure about something – it’s more like a question.
A: What time does the concert start?
B: I don’t know leh. Aren’t you the one that booked the tickets?
What it means: Lor holds a sense of resignation and finality when used at the end of a sentence. Like there’s nothing to do about it, let’s move on. Think c’est la vie with a sense of ennui. Why are you so sad? Because life happens, lor.
Example: “Like that, lor”
Own time own target
What it means: When serving national service, this term will be used to let soldiers know to fire their rifles at the target board at their own time. For daily usage, it’s used to let people know they can do things at their own pace.
Example: “Hey Mark, regarding the project I just gave you, do it own time own target okay?”
Die die must try
What it means: This phrase is used to express something that’s so good you must try it no matter what.
Example: “I’m not kidding, this place has the best laksa. You die die must try.”
Agak agak / aga aga (Singlish noun: agaration)
What it means: Roughly/getting a rough estimate.
Example 1: A: What time should we meet?
B: After work… 7pm agak agak.
Example 2: A: How much salt should I use for this dish?
B: Just aga aga lah!
Tak boleh tahan / Buay tahan
What it means: When you cannot tolerate something.
Example: “Argh, he’s so annoying. I buay tahan his attitude.”
What it means: It’s made up of two words – Bo which means ‘No’ and Jio which means ‘Invite’.
Example: “How could you go to Marquee and bojio me!”
What it means: It’s Hokkien for crazy.
Example: A: Hey, what did you have for lunch?
B: I had two burgers, fries and a bubble tea after my second breakfast!
A: Whoa, siao ah, how could you eat so much?!
Catch no ball
What it means: To be absolutely clueless.
Example: “That professor taught that class really badly, I really catch no ball’ or ‘Can you explain the concept again, just now I catch no ball at all.”
What it means: The notion of dumping a task onto someone else, rather than completing it yourself.
Example: “Hey, guess what? I just got arrowed to do this task again.”
What it means: Come from the word sabotage in English but in Singlish it’s shortened to “sabo”, which can be used when playing a practical joke on others or even causing deliberate harm. A person who’s famous for “sabo-ing” is known as the “sabo king”.
Example: “For the sake of yourself, you sabo your friend. You’re really the sabo king.”
What it means: To be physically tired or exhausted. Not to be confused with the English use of the word, if you know what we mean.
Example: “I’m feeling so shag after that 10km run’ or ‘wow did so much today, shag man.”
What it means: Use this word when nothing is going your way. If you’re in trouble. Jialat. Tired? Jialat. Arduous or something’s very bad? This is jialat. Life is hard? Also jialat.
Example: “Oh it’s raining again today? The weather has been so jialat recently” or “I broke the vase at home, jialat already.”
What it means: As long as you’re experiencing boredom, a lack of enthusiasm or just tired of life. Basically this word can be used in a multitude of contexts.
Example: “Time is passing so slowly, sian” or “I hardly slept today, sian.”
What it means: To be a busybody.
Example: “You’re always peering over my shoulder to see who I’m texting, can you not be so kaypoh” or “Dude it’s my problem, no need for you to be kaypoh.”
Come I clap for you
What it means: A sarcastic way of praising someone.
Example: “Bro I managed to get the girls number after trying for ages!”, or “Good for you, come I clap for you.”
What it means: If something has got you dumbfounded, perplexed, bewildered, confused or any synonym related to these words, that thing is cheem.
Example: “This exam question is cheem” or “She writes in a really cheem way.”
Ponteng (sometimes abbreviated to pon)
What it means: Malay for ‘playing truant’ but can just about be used if you want to give anything a miss.
Example: “Do you want to ponteng work tomorrow?” or “You mean you pon school yesterday?”
What it means: This word was recently added to take Oxford dictionary (yay Singlish). It means to be posh or of high social status.
Example: “The meal we had at that fine dining restaurant was so atas”, or “Wow, look at the way that girl dresses, it’s so atas!”
What it means: To reserve a place or call dibs on something.
Example: “Can you chope a seat for me?”
What it means: A fiercely competitive spirit.
Example: “She queued for four hours to get the latest iPhone – so kiasu!”
What it means: The Singlish equivalent of “Oh my gosh,” or “Oh man”.
Example: “Alamak! Tickets for the concert are all sold out!”
Can or not?
What it means: A way of asking if something is possible/can be achieved.
Example: “Dinner at 7? Can or not?”
What it means: Fantastic, or to convey feelings of satisfaction and pleasure.
Example: “This plate of chicken rice is damn shiok.”
What it means: A Hokkien term for embarrassing and shy. If you’re out for a big meal and there’s a little left on a sharing plate that nobody wants to take, it’s also known as the ‘paiseh piece’.
Example: “Paiseh – can you lend me some cash?”
What it means: An expression of surprise, and/or annoyance. If you accidentally bump into an old lady on the street, you’re likely to hear her yelp AIYOH!
Example: “Aiyoh, why is the bus taking so long to arrive?”
What it means: The Singlish equivalent of takeaway.
Example: “I’m going to tapao lunch from the hawker centre.”
What it means: A Malay word for “can”, or “possible”.
Example: “You check on the movie timings and I’ll handle the bookings. Boleh?”