OED appeals: can you help us find earlier evidence of ‘shiok’ and ‘sabo’?
Can you help us? OED Appeals is a dedicated community space on the OED website where OED editors solicit help in unearthing new information about the history and usage of English.
Part of the process of revising words and phrases for the OED involves searching for evidence of a word’s first recorded use in English, and for this we need your help.
Over the course of the next two weeks we will be launching appeals for words originating in English as it is spoken in Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Philippines, as part of the OED’s continuing efforts to maximize its coverage of English across the globe.
Can you find earlier examples of usage of the following word? Visit the OED Appeals page to find out more, and to submit any antedating evidence.
Today’s appeals are looking specifically at a couple of words that are often used in Singapore English: shiok and sabo.
Shiok is a borrowing from Malay that has acquired multiple uses and meanings in everyday Singapore English. It is an exclamation expressing admiration or approval, just like ‘cool!’ and ‘great!’ It is also an adjective that describes delicious food or a superb meal, or anything that can be considered admirable, enjoyable, or excellent.
OED editors have been able to trace the exclamative use of shiok to 1977:
‘Fantas. Ooh-la-la. Phew-whew. Wowie. Shiok. Jazzy, man. Beaut.’
1977 New Nation (Singapore), 26 May p. 19
The food use has been dated to 1978:
‘Help preserve the essence of ‘shiok’ cooking!’
1978 Straits Times (Singapore) 8 July p. 16 (advertisement)
And the earliest evidence of shiok as a general term of approval is from 1980:
‘Singlish sounds them shiok at times, wouldn’t you agree?’
1980 Sunday Times (Singapore) 5 October p. 10
We feel, however, that shiok may have been used in more informal contexts before it found its way into the pages of New Nation. Can you help us by finding examples of shiok earlier than 1977?
Sabo, an abbreviated form of the English word sabotage, is a Singaporean slang term that means tricking people or intentionally making trouble for them, especially to gain a personal advantage. The word can be used as both a noun and a verb, and the earliest quotations for both uses in the current OED entry are taken from the same 1977 Straits Times article:
‘You…chalk up points in your favour…at the expense of others by the dirty trick of ‘sabo-ing’…them. In other words, back stabbing.’
‘You have been had, buddy. Sabo King strikes again!’
1977 Straits Times (Singapore), 20 February, p. 11
The use of sabo as a noun is recorded earliest in the expression sabo king, another Singaporean colloquialism, which refers to a person who habitually tries to sabo others.
Since the entry has been published, OED editors have been able to find an older example of saboused as a verb, from an article in the Singapore Free Press dated 1960:
‘Certain members of the Faculty of Medicine are still talking angrily about how they were ‘saboed’ (varsity slang for ‘sabotaged’) from enjoying themselves at the Orientation Dance.’
1960 Singapore Free Press 27 June, p. 6
This makes us think that there may be earlier evidence for sabo still left to be discovered. Can you help us by finding examples of sabo as a verb earlier than 1960, or sabo as a noun earlier than 1977?
Singapore and Hong Kong English in the OED
A number of words from Singapore English and Hong Kong English were added to the OED in 2016. The Hong Kong English words include loanwords from Cantonese, like dai pai dong (‘a food stall’) and kaifong (‘a neighbourhood association’), as well as formations in English that are only or chiefly used in Hong Kong, like milk tea (‘any of various drinks made with tea and milk or cream, especially a drink originating in Hong Kong, made with black tea and evaporated or condensed milk’).
The additions from Singapore English include new senses of common English words like blur meaning ‘slow in understanding; unaware, ignorant, confused’; loanwords from Chinese, like ang moh (‘a light-skinned person, esp. of Western origin or descent; a Caucasian’) and the words under consideration in this OED Appeal, shiok and sabo.
The terms lepak (‘to loiter aimlessly or idly; to loaf, relax, hang out’) and teh tarik (‘sweet tea with milk’), are characteristic of both Singapore and Malaysian English, while wet market (‘a market for the sale of fresh meat, fish, and produce’) is used not just in these two countries, but all over Southeast Asia.