Original article appeared in The Inkstone News.
It’s one of the most ubiquitous phrases used across China, but also one of the hardest to translate well.
In Chinese, 加油 – literally “add oil” – is a versatile expression people write, say and shout to express encouragement and support. And now, for the first time, the Oxford English Dictionary has made it official.
Hugo Tseng, a professor of English language and literature at the Soochow University in Taiwan, first spotted the new entry for the phrase “add oil!” in the online edition of the dictionary. (Yes, the exclamation mark is included.)
In a column published in the Taiwan edition of Apple Daily on Sunday, he said he was delighted that the word made its way into an authoritative record of the English language like the Oxford dictionary.
He recalled how he used to say “add oil” in English jokingly, knowing that it was a “Chinglish” saying, like “long time no see,” that is now commonly used by Chinese speakers and non-speakers alike. The origin phrase is pronounced ga1 yau4 in Cantonese and jiā yóu in Mandarin.
Just about any Chinese-English bilingual speaker can tell you that there isn’t a single English expression that perfectly captures the meaning of “add oil,” which shifts in different contexts.
Say the phrase to co-workers, and it means “keep up the hard work.” Say it to a sick friend, and it means “get well soon.” It’s a verbal pat on the back that can be used in all sorts of occasions.
But if you put the word in Google Translate, you get “come on,” which is probably not something you want to say to anyone down on his luck. Some popular translations are “go for it” and “good luck.”
Since 2008, Tseng said, he had regularly looked up the word in the dictionary, which is revised quarterly.
This suggests that the addition was made in October, when the dictionary was last updated. A list of 1,400 new words added this month includes nothingburger, a thing of no substance, and idiocracy, a society governed by idiots.
The phrase “add oil” appears in the dictionary but it’s not included in the list of new words. The publisher of the dictionary did not immediately respond to emailed questions about the entry.
In May 2016, the Oxford dictionary had said that editors were researching the term as a future addition.
The Oxford dictionary entry identifies “add oil” as originally and chiefly Hong Kong English. It cites usage of the word dating back as early as 1964.