The Chinglish phrase “add oil” has been made an official term in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), taking many native Chinese speakers by surprise.
“Add oil” is a Hong Kong English interjection literally translated from the Cantonese expression gā yáu, with reference to petrol being injected into an engine. The common expression is a versatile one used by native Chinese speakers to express encouragement, incitement or support, somewhere along the lines of “keep it up”, “hang in there”, or “good luck”.
“To directly translate ‘jiayou’ into ‘add oil’ is a form of Chinglish that many English teachers will correct without hesitation. However, the phrase has become popular to the point where the Oxford English Dictionary has accepted it and recognized its place,” Hugo Tseng, associate professor from Taiwan’s Soochow University, wrote in his findings in Hong Kong’s Apple Daily on Oct. 14 .
However, according to OED head of US dictionaries Katherine Connor Martin on Twitter, the phrase has been in the OED since March 2016. The OED’s entry of “add oil” cites a 2005 Post article on Macau as one of the earliest printed pieces of evidence of its general use. It was only discovered recently as a surprise to many Chinese citizens who have been regarding the term as a playful way of expressing a popular native utterance of encouragement.
The process of adding words can be long and painstaking. According to Oxford University Press, a word must require sufficient independent examples of use over a “reasonable amount of time” to be considered for inclusion. The publishers also consider whether the word has reached a “level of general currency”, that is, understood by readers without the need of an explanation.
“[It] depends on the accumulation of a large body of published (preferably printed) citations showing the word in actual use over a period of at least 10 years,” according to the publisher.
Many other popular “Hong Kong English” terms have made their way into OED as well, such as “char siu” (barbecued pork), “milk tea”, “wet market” (A market for the sale of fresh meat, fish, and produce.), and “sitting-out area.”
“With the current status of English as a world language, British English is no longer to be regarded as the dominant form of English,” remarked OED World English Editor Danica Salazar.