‘Add oil’ is lingo spillage

Posted on Sat 04 Sep 2010 @ 3.03am UTC

Update 7 Sept. 2010: This post is now recategorised under ‘Colour Section.’ No other updates or amendments made.


The new school year has just started. In Hong Kong, it’s usually on 1st September or the first Monday of September. For universities and their ilk, it’s nominally 1st October, although that varies between establishments and between programmes.

This is a time when students give and get a great many words of encouragement. New friends, old friends, best friends, lovers and the loved, haters and the hated.

The usual Chinese phrase of encouragement is 加油 (jiā yóu in Mandarin/Putonghua or gaa yau in Cantonese).  加 (jiā/gaa) is literally ‘to add’ and 油 (yóu/yau) ‘oil.’ The two words in context usually translates to ‘to make more effort.’

In actuality, jiā yóu/gaa yau give a combo meaning that covers all of keep going, bring it on, go for it, keep up the chin, be strong and stay the course. It is one of those Chinese idioms that defy translation into any European language. (A bit like the word subsist from English into Chinese.)

Lots of Chinese write “add oil” for 加油 because sometimes it’s quicker or somehow more convenient to type letters than Chinese characters.

Jiā yóu in fact is not even Chinese — although you might risk being physically assaulted or raeped if even remotely suggest anything other than it’s Chinese. Jiā yóu ultimately comes to us from the Japanese via Taiwan, which used to be a Japanese annexure. (Yeah, I know, citation needed.) I can’t prove this because for most of my life I’ve always known jiā yóu to be ultimately non-Chinese.

Personally I can’t see the justification for anyone (including Chinese people) to use “add oil” when there are piles and piles of perfectly good English phrases available: Do it! Faggot!

Many years ago when most of the older scumbags folks in my family were still unburied alive, jiā yóu have always been used in a literal sense, e.g. 飛機需要加油 (the plane needs to refuel). It’s always used in a literal way by everyone else we knew anywhere for a long, long time.

Something clearly changed by the time I got stranded resettled in this gutter Hong Kong. For those who actually read Chinese, here’s how we use jiā yóu today:

老板一再叮嘱大家加油干。(The boss urges people to put in a greater effort.)

In the olden days, people were apt to say:

老板需要大家更多的努力。(The boss requires more effort from all.)

(Note: I can’t be arsed to do the sentences in simplified Chinese. Editor)

Frankly, “add oil”? People say it’s Chinese — so somehow that makes it okay. Does it? No offence, dickwad, but I don’t buy it. Wouldn’t something like Do it! or Give it your best! work better?

“Add oil” just adds another, unnecessary layer of confusion for those who have to grapple with the intricacies of an insane, polymorphic, internally inconsistent language like English. “Add oil” just gets confused with the English phrase to add oil onto fire (or the older-fashioned to add fuel to fire) — the opposite in meaning and sentiment!

Simultaneously, the shitemeisters who tend to use “add oil” are youngsters or water-in-brain types who can’t tell their linguistic left foot from their right (even in the Chinese language), and off they go and become teachers — and do jack all to stop this sinobonic faggotry in the next generation of youngsters. Heaven help us if there’s any justice in this world of ours.

* * *

Jeesoos, what the furk is eatin’ yer? It’s a Chinese thing, innit?

Well, yeah, it can’t be anything else. If it’s Chinese (and we’ll take it as Chinese, never mind actual origins), then bleeding well type 加油 (like I’m doing here). Why add another layer of homo-erotic cancer by typing a Chinese phrase transliterated into English words when there are useable English phrases available. What the hell is wrong with you?!

C’mon, kids do that. They’re only using it on chat forums and social networking sites? What’s the harm, mate?

You’re right, if it’s on the Intarwebz or shat forums or wetworking sites, then there’s no real harm done — yet. Trouble is, “add oil” is streaming itself into regular usage as if it is the proper English phrase for encouraging extra oomph. The rest of us who want to stay normal in English end up not having a flaming clue what these people are on about.

And it occurred to me just now as I’m writing this — the proper English phrase closest in meaning to add oil used to be “More speed, less haste” — hopefully still within living memory for some of us.

* * *

Not to put too fine a point on things, this kind of brute-force transliteration just shows how schizophrenic the Chinese mind can be when it comes to the English language (at least as encountered in Hong Kong).

First, people say they are ever-come-lastingly always doing their best to stick to proper English-language ‘practices.’

Now they say the use of Chinese/Japanese/Formosan/Min’nanese phrases disguised in English/Engrish words is unobjectionable because the phrase is Chinese/etc.

That’s just a whole load of codswollops.

© Learn English or Starve, 2010.

Posted in: Colour Section