Beyond just boondocks: Filipino words in the Oxford English Dictionary

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Unknown to many, there are more Filipino words in the English dictionary than just boondocks.

Boondocks, more colloquially called as boonies by the Americans, is used to refer to the rough country, with origins from the Filipino word bundok. They coined the term in the 1940’s during the height of World War II, when soldiers were battling it out with the Japanese in, literally, our boondocks.

The word is just one example of a Filipino word making it to the dictionary due to frequent usage by the Americans, but Danica Salazar — an academic and lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) — wondered what other Filipino words made it to the dictionary.

To answer her question, she did the most obvious: she consulted the dictionary and other related studies, and noted that in the 70’s Fe Yap had a similar question and did a research on Filipino words in the English dictionary. As Salazar explains:

…back in 1970, Fe Yap published a study entitled Pilipino loan words in English, which featured a list of Philippine words that appeared in Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (1961) and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language (1968)… Yap’s list seem to be limited to three semantic groups: native flora and fauna, household and cultural items, and names of Philippine ethnic groups.

Three decades later, in 2004, Kingsley Bolton and Susan Butler reviewed Yap’s list and called this type of vocabulary as “Webster words,” which refer to mostly words with botanical, zoological, and anthropological relations that date back to the American colonial period, when there was wider research on Philippine geography and its people. Bolton and Butler compared Yap’s list to the 2003 Merriam-Webster online dictionary, and learned that the country is still mainly represented in the dictionary by these similar words.

They also consulted the OED and found the same set of Webster words, and even more limited coverage of Philippine words.

Curious, Salazar dug deeper:

I was very interested to find out if all this still holds true. As soon as I started working at OUP (Oxford University Press), I scoured the OED for all evidence of the Philippines. The results of my search fall into three categories: there are of course the dozens of Webster words, which are borrowings from Philippine languages and Spanish, but there are also hundreds of words that may not be entirely characteristic of Philippine English, but are illustrated by quotations taken from Philippine sources, ranging from the very old to the very new.

She also took note of some of the words that made it to the OED, and noticed that they all still belong to the same group with the technical Webster words; there were only a few words which make up a part of everyday Filipino conversation:

From Tagalog and other Philippine languages:
calangay, colugo, malmag, taclobo, taguan, tamarau, tambagut
baku, balibuntal, buntal, buri, cadang-cadang, cogon, dita, galanga, kamachili, Lacatan, lauan, narra, paribuntal, ylang-ylang
Manila, Sulu
Life and culture
anting-anting, barangay, kumpit, panguingue, vinta
Ethnic groups and languages
Bajau, Ibanag, Ifugao, Illano, Ilocano, Manobo, Maranao, Pangasinan, Pilipino, Tagalog, Tasaday, Tau Sug

From Spanish:
Life and culture
abanderado, adelantado, barrio, beno/vino, bolo, caracore, gayelle, insurrecto, jai alai, ladronism, Pacifico, padre, patache, patria, persiana, pesame, peso, petate, población,presidente
Terms for ethnic origin
Filipino, Indio, mestiza, mestizo, Moro, Negrillo, Negrito
Animals and plants
algarroba, camote, jusi, maguey, pina, roncador, sacate, sampaguita

In her search, Salazar also found that beyond describing the Philippine environment and its people, there were also hundreds of words that were illustrated by quotations from publications from and about the country. One of these date back to 1700’s, when the Spaniards were exploring the islands:

Filipino sources in the OED date back to as early as the 1700s, centuries before English even reached our shores. These quotations are taken from English translations of descriptive accounts originally written in Spanish, such as the 1708 translation of de Argensola’s Conquista de las islas Molucas (1609), shown here with a quotation for the entry capitulation:


1708 tr. L. de Argensola Discov. & Conquest Molucco & Philippine Islands x. 250 This Original Capitulation was brought into Spain, with the other authentick Instruments.

She took note of more examples that were lifted from various journals, written accounts, and publications, such as Philippine Daily Inquirer and Business World:

1909 Philippine Agric. Rev. 2 590 A new variety of coffee known as ‘robusta’..was discovered some years ago growing wild on the estates in Africa.


blind item
2006 Philippine Daily Inquirer (Nexis) 23 Sept., That blind item I wrote some months ago about a PBA assistant coach being involved in cybersex should have served as a wake-up call.

2000 Business World (Philippines) (Nexis) 14 Apr. 42 Its Manila office is sponsoring ‘Nursingly Yours, The Netherlands,’ a program which will provide training for qualified Filipino nurses.

Salazar added that the OED is now even more interested in more contemporary words that are frequently being used in everyday conversations and modern living. Aside from this, she further explained more possible sources for a word to be included in the OED:

Apart from borrowing from the local languages, there are plenty of other means by which the lexicon of a colonial language can be enriched when it is adopted in a foreign land. There is semantic change, or the assignation of new meanings to existing words.

She gave the word salvage as an example. In the English dictionary, the word means “to rescue,” but in Filipino context, it means “to summarily execute.” In the comments section, she and notable writer Pete Lacaba explained that the change of meaning might have come from the way the body was found.

Further, Salazar explained that there are more ways to coin new words, like derivation, compounding, clipping, abbreviation and conversion, and added:

Recent editorial research at the OED traced the first usage of mani-pedi, the clipping and blending of the words manicure and pedicure, to an essay by Filipino writer Kerima Polotan-Tuvera published in the 1970s. The OED is also extending its research to fields beyond flora and fauna, with food being a particularly good source of a wealth of new words.

In her search, she found one Filipino dish that made it in the dictionary, as of December 2011:

adobo, n.
1. In Filipino cookery: a spicy stew, typically consisting of pork, poultry, or seafood cooked in a vinegar-based sauce, seasoned with garlic, soy sauce, bay leaves, and peppercorns.

A Filipina in the OED lexicography team really does wonders. Quoting her from a feature published in Rappler:

If I can include ‘chorva’ in the OED, maybe my life would have not been in vain.

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