Tag Archives: sweet

South African Slang and Sayings (Voetsek, Sweet Like a Lemon, Yoh, Aiyoh, Shame)

Informant Context:

Otis’ parents immigrated separately to America from South Africa in the 1980’s, during apartheid. Otis’ extended family now lives in the Bay Area, California and near Johannesburg, South Africa. Otis often visits his family in South Africa.

Transcript:

OTIS: I can think of like, some slang that my family uses a lot. Um…

INTERVIEWER: Oh, yeah.

OTIS: A lot of it is like… [laughs] a lot of it will be like, toned-down South African swear words. 

INTERVIEWER: [joins]

OTIS: I don’t really know how most of them are spelled, but you could probably find… I don’t really know, but uh, one I thought of is… is “Voetsek!” [both laugh]. And that… it—it means “get away” in Afrikaans. And it… like, it’s mainly like, a thing that you say to dogs, ’cause there’s a lot of stray dogs in like, the kind of poorer areas where my family grew up. So they would be like, if a dog is coming near them, and if the dog looks dangerous, they’d like—yell “Voetsek!” And all the dogs *know* it by now, so the dogs—

INTERVIEWER: Oh, Wow! [laughs]

OTIS: —Scatter. 

INTERVIEWER: They all—they all scatter?

OTIS: But… so when you say it to a person, [laughs] it’s kind of rude. You’re like, calling him like, a dog.

INTERVIEWER: Oh, OK. Yeah.

OTIS: Yeah. And… like, my family will like, jokingly say it to each other. When like, one of my aunts is teasing one of the other aunts, they’ll be like, “Eh, voetsek” 

INTERVIEWER: [laughs]

INTERVIEWER: Like, joking. Um… [both laugh] There’s this thing my dad like, taught me to say whenever I was visiting family in South Africa. But I’ve never heard anyone else say it, but my dad’s like, “Oh yeah, me and all my friends always say this”. It—It just means “cool”, but it’s “sweet like a lemon”.

INTERVIEWER: [laughs] Oh! 

OTIS: So…

INTERVIEWER: [voice broken by laughter] I haven’t heard that… either. Lemon’s aren’t really sweet!

OTIS: It makes zero sense! But, uh… my dad might be just like, messing with me.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah [both laugh]Do people respond when you… ’cause he—he told you to say this in front of other family. Did they understand it? 

OTIS: They’ll just be like, “Oh yeah OK” [laughs].

INTERVIEWER: Oh. [joins]

[…]

OTIS: And then like, there’s a lot of like, exclma—exclamations um [laughs]… there’s like, “yoh”! Which means [laughs]—and I-I don’t know how you gonna spell all this stuff so… 

INTERVIEWER: I try to spell it out phonetically, but [laughs].

OTIS: Y-y-yeah. It’s like “yoh”!—which means, uh… like “Whoa”! And then there’s “Aiyoh!” which is like, “that’s crazy!” And I’ll hear my dad say that stuff a lot when he’s watching his soccer games [both laugh]. And… um… Oh! OK, a lot of South Africans will say [elongated] “Shame!” But it like…! It means—it kind of means the same thing as like “it’s a shame,” like how Americans will say. But it’s kind of different. Like, they’ll mean it in like, a… they’ll say it when like, a kid does something cute. Or like, someone’s being naïve, almost? 

INTERVIEWER: Oh.

OTIS: Like, if they say like—if they say like, “Oh this… kid like my, my son like didn’t make the soccer team. He was too short.” 

INTERVIEWER: [laughs]

OTIS: Or something. I guess that’s like “it’s a shame”. 

INTERVIEWER: Yeah.

OTIS: But like, if they say something like, “Oh! The… the little kid made like, a… made like a fort, and told everyone that’s his new house.” They’d all be like “Uh! A shame, man!” They’s say that. [both laugh] 

INTERVIEWER: Oh interesting. So it’s around kids or something cute.

OTIS: Mhm.

INTERVIEWER: But also kind of something unfortunate. 

OTIS: Yeah.

INTERVIEWER: So like… so like if I told somebody that I backed into a car in the parking lot, would they say “Shame” to that? Probably not? 

OTIS: No!

INTERVIEWER: Yeah [laughs]. Whereas— 

OTIS: If you said something like… like, “Oh, I need to go get gas right now”. They’d probably said like “Oh, shame”.  

INTERVIEWER: Oh, OK. 

Informant Commentary:

The informant recalls two levels of folk sayings: one that appears cultural (or at least, regional to Pretoria), and one that appears familial. On a large scale, interjections with origins in Afrikaans or  Asian languages (in the case of “aiyoh”) are easily recognizable among those in the South African Indian culture. They might even be understandable to those outside this culture, given the right context. To use Otis’ example, the meaning term “aiyoh” might be decipherable by someone watching the same soccer game as Otis’ father. The term “shame” might be decipherable to someone watching a child build a fort in front of the family. Other sayings, such as “sweet like a lemon” are idiosyncratic to Otis’ family, in his experience.

Analysis:

A small detail Otis mentioned about the dogs in South Africa give the term “voetsek” a deeper significance. Otis stated that “all the dogs know it by now,” implying that over time, the dog population came to gather the same meaning from the word “voetsek” as humans. In this way, the dogs seems to be part of the in-group who understand this term. If the term was said to a group of dogs from the region and a group of humans from outside the region, in “scatter[ing]”, the dogs would demonstrate a better understanding of this folk term than the humans would. This is a post-humanist analysis of this one, particular saying: folklore shared among non-humans. As for the collection of sayings as a whole—there is a significant amount of evidence online to suggest that these are widely used terms, not only among South African Indians, but South Africans of other ethnicities as well. “Aiyoh” appears more idiosyncratic to Asian (particularly Indian and Chinese) cultures, and “sweet like a lemon” might have a wider usage than Otis suggests, but is obscure compared to the rest. 

Take From Life with the Small Spoon, not with the Ladle

Proverb: “Греби от зивота с малката лажичка, а не с черпака”

Transliteration: Grebi ot zivota c malkata lazichka, a ne c cherpaka.

Literal translation: Take from life with the small spoon, not with the ladle.

Meaning: Don’t do so much at once that you can’t enjoy the sweetness of life.

Analysis:

This is a Bulgarian proverb I heard from my mother when I went home for one weekend. She said it to me when we were talking about my college life and I was feeling overwhelmed by all the meetings, classes, and work I had to do. She encouraged me to slow down and perhaps limit my activities so I could better enjoy my time in college, and as we were speaking in Bulgarian, she mentioned this proverb.

I asked her more about it, and she said it was related to “бяло сладко,” (byalo cladko) or “white sweets”, which is a small dessert served in delicate plates or saucers alongside an appropriately sized spoon and a glass of water, to offset the sugary taste. Since the spoon is very small, only miniature bites can be taken of the sweet, but that way it lasts longer and one can relish the dessert much better than they could if they ate the sweet all at once. “White sweets” is a traditional Bulgarian dessert, so it naturally lends itself to folk sayings.

My mother also mentioned that there was another similar saying: “шоколада се яде по малко” (shokolada ce yade po malko), meaning “you eat chocolate only little by little.” Beyond this phrase serving as a dietary suggestion, it again indicates that life should be appreciated in small bites and small moments. One should not guzzle down all the desserts or become greedy in getting too much of a good thing. Additionally, as Bulgaria has been mostly agrarian and many people have been relatively impoverished, they would naturally value small enjoyments and appreciating the simple things in life. Both these proverbs reflect that state of mind. They also gave me a craving for a sugary or chocolaty dessert, which I indulged in, and most importantly, it relieved some of my stress from my classes.