Language of the streets
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - June 29, 2019 - 12:00am

That is the title of National Artist Nick Joaquin’s book of essays, published in 1980 by National Book Store under his journalistic nom de guerre, Quijano de Manila. Many of the essays first saw print in the 1950s and the 1960s, when Joaquin was a journalist at the Philippines Free Press. He would later become chief editor of the Philippine Graphic, and continue writing nonfiction and reportage.

Writer and critic Dr. Caroline Hau, who is now based at the lovely Kyoto University, said in a blog entry. “The street that my parents used to call Azcarraga is now Recto (just as the old Rosario in Binondo is now Quintin Paredes, and Buendia is now Gil Puyat), and not many will have remembered that Marcelo de Azcarraga was not only prime minister of Spain in 1897, when the Philippine revolution against Spain was already under way, but a Filipino of Basque ancestry who was born and raised in Manila, even though Jose Rizal’s friend, Ferdinand Blumentritt, to whom Azcarraga had written after Blumentritt published a defense of Rizal’s novel, Noli me Tangere (1887), had only this to say about Azcarraga: ‘I did not know he is a Filipino, but it seems he is that only by birth.”

Well and good, now that that the street has been renamed after the late Senator Claro Mayo Recto, a fiery nationalist who loved his country. That was a time, too, when patriots and brilliant people were elected to the Senate, but let us not go there, for Senate today is largely lackluster compared to earlier times.

Joaquin’s book also offers many other startling discoveries of the tongue. The word sipsip, which means sycophant or brown-nosing, could be traced all the way back to the 1930s Commonwealth. It reached Tagalog through the Ilocano words sipsip buto, along with siga-siga, which means tough, a show-off, or even a gangster. I remember that if my father then wore a long-sleeved white shirt and a new pair of shiny pants, he would be called sputing.

Joaquin notes: “The Spanish word for gang is pandilla; but when we preferred to adapt barkada, which means boatload, were we unconsciously moved by the memory of a time when being together in a boat made people not simply co-passengers but near-kinsmen, almost brothers, pledged to fight and die for each other? That was the idea of the barangay; and our young folk have expressed, in a Spanish word, an ancient Malay concept.” This insight is vintage Joaquin, who could yoke together ideas coming from his lucid historical memory, as well as his wide and varied readings.

“Language of the streets” could very well capture what has been happening in recent years, when ordinary language used by Filipinos have entered the mainstream of universal words. This  has been noted no less by than the Oxford English Dictionary or the OED, the crème de la crème of dictionaries and language research projects the world over.

A report by Pia Lee Brago from the Philippine STAR last 24 June said that “the third and current edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) sees the addition of a number of words originating from the Philippines like bongga, despedida, gimmick, halo-halo, kikay kit, kilig, overseas Filipino worker or OFW, pandesal and trapo, [aside from] also expanding the meanings of some existing English words.”

An event celebrating the uniqueness and creativity of Philippine English, as seen through the lens of the OED, was held at the Philippine embassy in the United Kingdom. Host was the newly opened Sentro Rizal London. The OED is one of the largest and longest-running language research projects in the world. From its first edition to its latest, the OED has included many words from the new varieties of English, including Philippine English.

“There are new senses of existing English words like gimmick or a night out with friends and viand, meaning ‘meat, seafood or vegetable dish that accompanies rice in a typical Filipino meal.’ Loan words from Filipino include bongga (extravagant, flamboyant; impressive, stylish), halo-halo (a dessert made of mixed fruits, sweet beans, milk and shaved ice) and kilig (exhilaration or elation caused by an exciting or romantic experience). Other loan words are from Chinese, such as pancit (noodles) and Spanish, like pandesal (bread roll) and despedida (going-away party).

The new English words that are only used in the Philippines include kikay kit (cosmetics case), comfort room (toilet), OFW and trapo (traditional politician perceived as belonging to a corrupt ruling class). The new additions to the OED were discussed at the event, attended by Philippine Ambassador to the UK Antonio Lagdameo, who opened the signing and turnover ceremony of the latest edition of the OED. The OED was represented by John Simpson, its former chief editor, who spoke about how Philippine vocabulary has been covered by earlier editions of the dictionary and Danica Salazar, the dictionary’s World English Editor, who talked about more recent Philippine additions.          

“The dictionary is committed to making space for words from the Philippines, as by doing so, we recognize how its Filipino speakers contribute to the richness and diversity of English,” Salazar said.

I am so kilig about this new linguistic development, since it justifies what my postgraduate mentor in Creative Writing, Dr. Gemino H. Abad, has called as words and poems “wrought from English.” Philippine poetry in English, Dr. Abad noted, and by extension, Philippine English, have been forged in a new language. It is neither Anglo-Saxon nor American, for it does not have the classical restraint of the Anglo-Saxon English or the fluid and easy slang of American English. Verily, he calls it Philippine English, the language of the blood, like a plow furrowing through the landscape of words.

At the heart of this new cluster of words is the OFW, who has brought home ideas for a new world order and insights for a new life from lives wrought outside of home.

Comments can be sent to

  • Latest
  • Trending
Are you sure you want to log out?
Login is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with