Say What?!

Over the past two years, I’ve kept a running list of quirky words or Singaporean phrases. Prior to moving over here, I was thrilled to hear Singaporeans spoke English. This would make the transition to living in Asia much easier. Moving to a foreign country is challenging enough. Throwing a new language on top of it definitely slings you a curveball. Although I didn’t quite understand that “English” in Singapore is quite different than the English we speak back home in the US. You see, before Singapore was Singapore, it was a part of Malaysia. Prior to Malaysia being Malaysia, it was run by the Royal Crown. Therefore, most of the English speakers spoke British English. This in itself can be challenging to accept when you are use to American English. It’s vastly different!

For example, one of my first friends in Singapore had moved over from Wales. One day, she went on and on about the wonderful resource of “the pound store.” It took me a few days to figure out she was referring to what I knew as “the dollar store” back home. And yes, Daiso is a great place to shop! Here are a few more words to take into account that we have adapted to using fairly often:

British English

I will admit a lot of these words have snuck their way into our everyday vocabulary, especially flat, taxi, crisps, lift, chips, rubbish, queue, football, and holiday. A few other semi-english words which we hear frequently from our Aussie and Kiwi friends are:

Texter: Crayola marker 

Jandals or Thongs: flip-flops

Chilly Bin: cooler

Trolley: grocery cart

Gynecologist: gynae

Fortnight: every two weeks or biweekly

Enquiry: question

Car Park: parking lot

Pram: stroller

Capsicum: pepper

Maccas: McDonalds

And of course, the bizarre way of spelling common words used in the everyday, American English language, such as…

centre, theatre, colour, flavour, neighbour, organise, recognise, analyse, travelled, manoeuvre, defence, offence, catalogue, dialogue, and paediatric was a super weird one for me. 

Singapore is the most diverse country I’ve ever experienced and has an overwhelming melting pot of cultures and languages from all over. While most people do speak English, it’s rare to meet someone who doesn’t speak at least two or three or even four or more languages. Coming from the States, it’s VERY intimidating. We might take Spanish or French in our younger years, but no one really uses it throughout their daily lives. In Singapore, it’s common to be amongst friends and overhear a side conversation in Dutch, French, Mandarin, or Spanish.

language in singa

Singlish is unique and derived from the mixing of Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, and English cultures. To hear a true Singaporean-raised individual carry on a local conversation, it sounds like a foreign language by itself. I can’t understand half of what is being said. However, our family has adapted to using a few common words/phrases by living in Singapore that we never used prior to our move:

Air Con: air-conditioning

On Promo: on sale

Grocery Shop: grocery store

Take Away: to go

Mozzie: mosquito

Can Lah: yes, of course

Cannot Lah: no, I’m sorry

Shiok: cool or great

Ang Moh: caucasian or light-skinned person of western decent…aka ME!

It sounds very crass to me, but Singaporeans will say, “I have to go to toilet” or “Where is the toilet?” Rarely will you hear bathroom or restroom over here.

I love to observe what the kids have picked up. Jack says rubbish truck instead of trash truck, cinema instead of theater, chips instead of fries, biscuit instead of cookie, and my favorite is the use of “auntie” and “uncle.”

Aunties and uncles have quite a different meaning in Singapore. They are generic names of the elderly Singaporean workers. For example, taxi drivers are often referred to as uncles and the janitor lady that cleans the common space in our tower, everyone calls auntie. It’s very endearing. I love to see Jack wave bye bye and hear him say, “thank you, uncle” when we get out of a cab. He’s also been using “can, lah” and “cannot, lah” for awhile now. He doesn’t understand why, but I think it’s pretty darn cute.


What phrases have you picked up from living or traveling abroad? If you are Singaporean or live in Singapore as an expat, what are some common phrases you’ve grown to include in your everyday vocabulary?

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