East African Words in the English Dictionary

Oxford English Dictionary

Drum rolls…  the Oxford English Dictionary has just selected 200 new words from East Africa to be part of its new edition. We all remember the 2020 Oxford English Dictionary which had introduced 29 Nigerian words to its lexicon. This year’s edition features the addition of almost 200 words from East African countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Given that Swahili is the lingua franca in all three of these countries (to a smaller extent in Uganda), it is no surprise that the words added have a strong Swahili origin. The words added include: Asante Sana (thank you very much), pole sana (sorry), Kanga (cotton fabric from East Africa), Chapo (thin pancake eaten for breakfast), Nyama Choma (roasted/grilled meat), collabo (collaborate), tarmac (to work the streets in search of a job; job huntic), jembe (not to be confused with djembe drums – hand tool shaped like a hoe used for digging), sambaza (to send mobile phone credit to someone), duka (small neighborhood store sharing all sorts of goods)…  Isn’t it marvelous how each culture adds to another? With the growth of the Swahili language and its inclusion in schools across the continent, it is no doubt a forward strategy of OED to include these, even though a bit late in my opinion. Since the introduction of Nigerian words into the Queen’s English Dictionary, I have been wondering if these new words actually get used in England, Australia, or other places where English is spoken, or does their use remain just local, and the addition is more of a ‘political’ play on diversity?  Enjoy from the OED website.


Region in East Africa where Swahili is spoken (linguisitics.illinois.edu)

Recent OED updates have included a significant number of new entries from South Africa and Nigeria. In this quarterly update, the OED continues to broaden its coverage of words from English-speaking Africa, with the publication of close to 200 new and revised entries for East African English. These additions and revisions are for words used chiefly or exclusively in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, three countries which share a common Anglophone background despite their differing colonial histories.

Something else that Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda have in common is their lingua franca, Swahili, and indeed several of the new and revised entries in the East African update are borrowings into English from this language. This includes the oldest of the new entries in this batch, jembereferring to a hoe-shaped hand tool used for digging, which is first attested in an article by British explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton published in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1860. Over a hundred years later, renowned Kenyan writer and academic Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o used the same word in his historical novel A Grain of Wheat, first published in 1967.

One of the newest words in this batch is also a Swahili loan word: sambazaa verb originally used to mean ‘to send mobile phone credit to someone’, but now used more generally to mean ‘to share or send something’. …

Flag of Kenya

Other borrowings in this batch include Swahili forms of address such as mwalimu ‘teacher’ (first attested 1884), as well as Bwana (1860) and its abbreviation, Bw (1973), a title of courtesy or respect prefixed to the surname or first name of a man. There are also expressions and discourse markers of Swahili origin such as asante sana (1911) ‘thank you’, pole sana (1966) ‘sorry’, and ati (2010) ‘as someone said; reportedly, allegedly’.

… The vocabulary of East African English is characterized not just by loan words, but also by lexical innovations based on English elements, several of which have now made their way into the OED. They include words formed through suffixation, such as unprocedural (1929) ‘irregular, illegal’; through clipping, like the verb collabo  (2008) ‘especially of musicians: to collaborate’; and through compounding, such as deskmate (1850) ‘a person who sits next to another at school’. Some English words also have meanings specific to the region. In East African English, the noun tarmac (1982) is also used as a verb meaning ‘to walk the streets looking for work; to job hunt’. A person who is pressed (1958) needs to go to the bathroom, while a stage (1965) is a bus stop or a taxi rank.

In addition to words used throughout East Africa, the OED’s latest update also features words unique to the varieties of English spoken in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. The lexicon of Kenyan English is represented by borrowings from a few of its many languages: for example, kiondo (1902) from Kikuyu and Isukuti (1972) from Luhya. A kiondo is a handwoven bag made from cord or string, now usually of sisal, with long handles or straps that can be slung over the shoulder, typical of the traditional handicraft of the Kikuyu and Kamba peoples of Kenya. An isukuti is a wooden drum, traditionally made from a hollowed log, which is usually hung over the shoulder and played by striking with the fingers and palms. Isukuti is also the name of a rhythmic, energetic traditional celebratory dance accompanied by drumming and singing, performed typically at festivals and weddings by the Luhya peoples of Western Kenya, such as the Isukha and Idakho.

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… In Kenyan English, a biting (1997) is a bite-sized piece of food, a small snack, appetizer, or canapé; while a merry-go-round (1989) is an informal cooperative savings scheme, typically run by and for women, in which each participant regularly contributes an amount, and the whole sum is distributed to the members in turn. To shrub is to pronounce or write words in another language in a manner that is influenced by one’s mother tongue, and a shrub (2008) is a word pronounced or written in this manner. To shrub and shrub are colloquialisms chiefly used with reference to English or Swahili words pronounced in a manner characteristic of another Kenyan language.

… As for Tanzanian English, one of the most widely known words from this variety is daladalathe name of a  van or minibus that carries passengers for a fare as part of a local informal transport system. Dating back to 1983, the English word comes from Swahili, with daladala being a reduplication of dala ‘dollar’, perhaps originally as a bus driver’s call. Dala is also the nickname of the Tanzanian 5-shilling coin, which used to be the typical fare for daladala minibuses.

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… The vocabulary of Ugandan English draws primarily from Luganda, one of the country’s major languages. Examples of Lugandan borrowings in this batch are kaveera (1994)‘a plastic bag, plastic packaging’; kwanjula (1973)‘an engagement ceremony where the families of the bride and groom formally meet’; and nkuba kyeyo (1991) ‘a Ugandan person working overseas, especially one doing a low-paid or unskilled job’—the Lugandan phrase literally means ‘someone who sweeps’. Katogo (1940) is another loan word from Luganda—it is the name of a typical Ugandan breakfast dish consisting of matoke (banana or plantain) boiled in a pot with various other ingredients. The word later developed a figurative sense, as it began to be used to mean ‘a mixture or fusion of disparate elements; a mess, a muddle’.

Ugandan English also has its share of distinctive uses of existing English words. In Uganda, to cowardize (2003) is to act like a coward or to lose one’s nerve, while to extend (2000) is to move from one’s position so as to make room for someone else. Well done (1971) is used as a friendly greeting or salutation, especially when encountering a person at work or in a state of activity. You are lost! (2013) is also used as a greeting, or in response to a greeting, in a manner similar to ‘long time no see’.