One of the most perplexing yet ever-present phrases used across China entered the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary this month. The dictionary defines “add oil,” previously considered to be Chinglish, as a phrase expressing “encouragement, incitement or support,” Formosa English News reported.
The phrase (加油 in Chinese) originates from Hong Kong English, which in turn stems from the Cantonese ga yao.
Meanwhile, Mandarin speakers pronounce the phrase as jiā yóu.
The phrase happens to be a versatile expression among Chinese and bilingual Chinese-English speakers.
When one says “add oil” to a sick person, it means “get well soon;” but when one tells it to a student taking an exam, it becomes “good luck.”
Hugo Tseng, a professor of English language and literature at Taiwan’s Soochow University, was glad to spot the new addition.
In an article on Apple Daily, Tseng recalled how he had used the phrase in English as a joke, knowing that it was Chinglish.
“Just like many people, I translated it literally into ‘add oil,’” Tseng said. “Later, I realized that it can be used in different contexts.”
“It depends on the situation and cannot be generalized.”
It turns out “add oil” is one of more than 1,400 new entries to the dictionary, which is updated every quarter.
Other additions include “nothingburger,” which describes a thing of no substance, and “idiocracy,” a society run by idiots, Inkstone News noted.