News and Features

The Dictionary Unit for South African English (DSAE) is a non-profit organisation based in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown), South Africa. Its dictionary project was established in 1969. Recent digital content and activities, as well as archival material, are featured below.

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Dictionary releases

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DSAE Corrected Edition

Following a design phase which transformed a compressed printed dictionary text into a layered, graphical Web Application for multiple platforms, the Corrected Edition was published in March 2023. Design and usability imperatives having been met, the current edition introduces content updates across a 1.5-million-word dictionary text.

Terms originally flagged as unassimilated into South African English (igqira, tata) now reflect as current usage based on updated linguistic evidence. Language names which had changed in the post-democracy officialisation of South African languages (Zulu to IsiZulu, Tswana to Setswana) now display as such.

In addition to updates to pronunciations, place names across the dictionary now reflect official names disseminated by the South African Geographical Names Council, e.g. Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, South Africa), the home of the Dictionary of South African English.

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DSAE Visual Edition

To make the unparalleled textual coverage of South African English documented in the online dictionary accessible in graphical form, leveraging new data visualisation and data aggregation techniques, the DSAE published a parallel Visual Edition in March 2022. This dictionary gives full textual histories of 4600 South African English words including compounds, derivatives and evidential quotations, resulting in a total of 1.5 million words of running text.

The Visual Edition offers new insights into the evolution of South African English from its earliest sources in the late 1600s, before the concept of “South Africa” as a country existed. The dictionary is rendered visually through macro- and micro-visualisations including graphical overviews, visual navigation (via Language of Origin, Register, Part-of-Speech and Subject Category), plus infographics comparing the contributions of prominent authors to the documentation of South African English. Access the Visual Edition at

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DSAE Mobile Edition

The release of the Mobile Edition of the online Dictionary of South African English in March 2020 marked the completion of a major digitisation phase from early pilot online editions to a fully-fledged web application thoroughly adapted for Desktop and Mobile devices. The same advanced feature set is now available on both platforms, preserving advanced Desktop features and user experience that rescale seamlessly on Android and iOS.

The Desktop Edition’s mascot entry was aardvark, the proverbial first word in the English dictionary for this “ungainly”, “sticky-tongued” species of anteater. The 2020 Mobile Edition paid tribute to its threatened evolutionary cousin, the scaly anteater or pangolin.

Read the Rhodes University press release here.

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DSAE Desktop Edition

The DSAE’s dictionary publishing goal for 2019 was the completion of its major re-design of the online Dictionary of South African English, originally released as a pilot edition with a user interface strongly reminiscent of the print edition. Given the complexity of the historical dictionary model, numerous design and navigation challenges had to be resolved in the dictionary. Additionally, new types of features such as micro-visualisations were added to the dictionary interface to relieve users of the cognitive burden of text-heavy entries. By far the most powerful new feature was category-based dictionary filtering, allowing the user to view subsets or slices of the dictionary based on criteria such as Subject Category, Register, or Language of Origin. A beta version of the dictionary was released in November 2018 and the full version, which included full-text search functionality among other added features, was published on 25 March 2019.

Recent conferences and symposiums

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Dictionary Day 2022

Click here to view the DSAE video presentation at Dictionary Day 2022, hosted by the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) and the South African National Lexicography Units.

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AFRILEX Conference 2022

The 26th International Conference of the African Association for Lexicography (AFRILEX) was held at Stellenbosch University from 27 - 29 June 2022. In 2022 Mr Tim van Niekerk, Executive Director of the Dictionary Unit for South African English, was invited to present the pre-conference workshop. His presentation A short, sharp introduction to the creation and presentation of online dictionaries outlined the digital adaptation of the DSAE’s flagship historical dictionary, a project that required editor-defined, machine-readable data modelling as a foundation for the development of an enhanced dictionary architecture and, superimposed on this, a modern user interface design.

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World English Symposium 2022

Executive Director for the Dictionary Unit for South African English, Mr Tim van Niekerk, was invited to act as a panelist at the Oxford World English Symposium 2022. The symposium, hosted by Oxford University Press, aimed to bring together academic researchers, teachers, lexicographers, and other language practitioners to share research findings, experiences, and insights on World Englishes, in order to come up with innovative approaches to the creation of dictionaries and other lexical resources.

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EMLex 2022

DSAE Senior Editor, Ms Bridgitte Le Du, presented a guest lecture at the European Master in Lexicography (EMLex) Summer School. EMLex is an international Master's degree program that can be concluded with an Erasmus Mundus Joint Master's degree. The title of her presentation was, The application of User Experience (UX) design to online lexicography: some guiding principles from the digitisation of the Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles.

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Dictionary Day 2021

Click here to view the DSAE video presentation at Dictionary Day 2022, hosted by the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) and the South African National Lexicography Units.

Projects and events

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Audio Pronunciation Project

The DSAE embarked on an Audio Pronunciation Project to capture audio recordings for the approximately 4600 entries in the online dictionary, including their variant pronunciations. This amounted to approximately 13 000 audio files recorded by authentic South African speakers reflecting the diverse origins of SAE. The project was made possible by funding from the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB).

Listen to sample audio clips for:
bokbaai vygie

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South African English With a Little Indigenous Spice

The South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR) and the Dictionary Unit for South African English (DSAE) came together to showcase the influence of indigenous South African languages on the regional variety of English.

Visit SADiLaR’s celebration of South African English With a Little Indigenous Spice for a quirky series of video clips highlighting local English borrowings from our 10 other official languages. From isiZulu to siSwati and gatvol to toyi-toyi (both words entering South African English in the 1980s), SADiLaR generously illustrates our country’s zesty linguistic usage and its multilingual influences.

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Sunday Argus Feature

If you’ve never thought of reading a dictionary, a brief browse of the treasure trove at could change your mind, writes Michael Morris.

There is little to suggest a rational association between “aardvark” and “zef” – an animal and a counter-cultural movement – except perhaps their being distinctly South African terms. But the words have an extra A–to–Z meaning for a small team of language specialists at work on one of the country’s most comprehensive and fascinating cultural projects at Rhodes University's St Peter’s Building . . . Read the full article, SA English as you have never seen it (published in the Sunday Argus, March 05, 2017).

Language features

Words for Small Things

The South African English word smallanyana was first recorded in 2016 in a New York interview with the former South African Minister of Social Development, Bathabile Dlamini. In the interview she famously suggested that many politicians had “smallanyana skeletons” in their closets. In late 2022 the word resurfaced in popular media in the context of allegations of state corruption. The adjective combines English small and the diminutive suffix -nyana (‘little’, ‘a small portion of something’), producing the meaning ‘a tiny little’ (skeleton). The suffix -nyana was first recorded in the Dictionary of South African English in 1968 under the word nipinyana, denoting a small measure or ‘nip’ of an alcoholic beverage, a term which is still current in South African English.

In similarly informal contexts, some South Africans playfully use the diminutive connotations of nyana as a noun to downplay a perceived vice, e.g. “two nyana” meaning two alcoholic drinks. Others attempt no mitigation of their consumption and refer to their tipple simply as a dop (see sense 3).

Lockdown Lingo

A televised address on 29 April 2020 saw the first recorded use of the word zol as a verb, when South African Minister Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma curbed the enthusiasm of “those who zol” (smoke hand-rolled cigarettes) by announcing the extension of a temporary ban on tobacco products.

The minister’s statement was lampooned in David Scott’s parody of the South African national anthem, which in turn revived several slang terms for cigarettes and tobacco, such as entjie, skyf and gwaai. Dagga – one of the oldest South African English words, dating back to 1670 – also received honourable mention.

For related words, see the dictionary’s list of terms for Smoking and Drug Use.


Afrikaans gave English the word trek, first used in South African English in the 1800s and later assimilated into general English (think Star Trek). Afrikaans borrowings are used by South Africans daily to refer to phenomena from landscapes (kloof) to foods (perlemoen), social relationships (boet, bad friends) and even to entertainment genres (skop, skiet en donder).

See numerous South African English words derived from Afrikaans, recorded from the 17th century onwards.


IsiNdebele is an Nguni language with over a million mother-tongue speakers in South Africa (Census 2011), concentrated in the northeastern region of the country. South African English words borrowed from isiNdebele include mobola plum (also known as the hissing tree), and toyi-toyi, the iconic militaristic dance step used in protest action from the late 20th century onwards.

Read more about these and other South African English words derived from isiNdebele.


Setswana has prompted numerous South African English words for a range of contexts from social interaction to the natural environment. First impacting on English in the early 1800s by providing terms for local fauna (tsessebe), Setswana borrowings later enacted daily social interactions (dumela) or described community events (lekgotla) and culinary items (morogo).

See numerous South African English words derived from Setswana, recorded from the 17th century onwards.


Xitsonga (part of the Bantu language family) is spoken as a first language by over 2 million South Africans (Census 2011). Prominent Xitsonga speakers include former South African soccer star, Jomo Sono, the current mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, and the South African Finance Minister, Tito Mboweni. According to available linguistic evidence, the word Tsonga as a name for the people (now Vatsonga), entered South African English in 1940. Other borrowings from Xitsonga include focho (a music style) and nyala (a species of antelope).

Sesotho sa Leboa

Sesotho sa Leboa is a Northern Sotho language spoken by the Basotho people of Limpopo Province in South Africa. The South African English words marula (a species of tree or its edible fruit) and Modjadji (or Rain Queen of the Lobedu people) are loan words borrowed from this language.

See more South African English words derived from Sesotho and Sesotho sa Leboa, first recorded from the early 19th century onwards.


Did you know that several South African English words such as lapa (an enclosure for outdoor entertainment purposes) and lekgotla or kgotla (a council or public meeting) are loan words borrowed from Sesotho?

See more South African English words derived from Sesotho and Sesotho sa Leboa, first recorded from the early 19th century onwards.


The Tshivenda language has over 1.2 million speakers in South Africa (Census 2011), mainly among the Venda people in Limpopo Province. Some South African English words derived from Tshivenda include: mopani (a species of tree) and the mopani worm that it hosts; malombo (a style of music influenced by the traditional ceremony of the same name); and terms for musical instruments such as the mbila (a type of xylophone) and murumba (a small drum).

See more South African English words derived from Tshivenda, first recorded from the early 19th century onwards.


IsiXhosa is the second most commonly spoken indigenous language in South Africa (Census 2011). Did you know that typical South African English words such as fundi (an expert or enthusiast), kwela (a distinct style of music and dance) and ubuntu (human-heartedness or compassion) are borrowed from isiXhosa?

Discover more South African English words derived from isiXhosa, first recorded from the early 19th century onwards.


SiSwati is spoken by 1.3 million South Africans (Census 2011) and is mainly used in the province of Mpumalanga, an area bordering the Kingdom of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland). Perhaps the best known Swazi cultural event is the annual reed-dance during which unmarried women pay homage to the Ngonyama (a hereditary title of Swazi kings) and Ndlovukazi (an honorific title given to the Queen Mother).

Read more about these and other South African English words derived from siSwati.