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Man scratching his head | © Ewen Roberts / Flickr
Man scratching his head | © Ewen Roberts / Flickr
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16 English Words and Sayings Travellers Won't Understand in the Philippines

Picture of Katrina Escalona
Updated: 5 September 2017
To the surprise of many first-time travellers to the Philippines, English is widely spoken in the country. In fact, alongside Tagalog, it is the official language of the country. It has, however, its own variant of English, containing several English words and phrases that are used and understood differently than in other English-speaking countries. Read on to avoid getting lost in translation should you encounter any of these terms when travelling to the Philippines.

“I’ll go ahead”

This is very frequently used by Filipinos, and is said out of courtesy before leaving. It is actually a literal translation of the Tagalog Mauna na ako, which is a polite way of asking permission to leave before the other person during a get together. Travellers to the country encounter this phrase a lot and are oftentimes confused, but really all it means is, “I’ll be going now, see you!”

Filipinas leaving and waving goodbye
Filipinas leaving and waving goodbye | © Brian Evans / Flickr

C.R.

Don’t be confused upon seeing signs or doors labelled “C.R.”. This is an acronym for “comfort room”, so this simply means restroom or washroom.

G.R.O. and Hostess

Don’t make the mistake of calling the female host of the Filipino party you attended a “hostess”, because this word takes on a whole new meaning in the Philippines: it is widely used as a euphemism for a prostitute. The acronym G.R.O., meaning Guest Relations Officer, is another term meaning the same.

Tomboy

By definition, the word tomboy simply refers to girls who enjoy things and activities usually associated with boys. But in the Philippines, tomboy is usually used to refer to lesbians.

Jeep/Jeepney

No, this does not refer to the make of car. Instead, it refers to a very common form of local public transport that was originally made from U.S. military Jeeps left behind after WWII. They’re long and brightly-colored, and have become a cultural icon. Often referred to as the “King of the Road”, the Philippine jeep is the local version of a jitney.

Philippine Jeepney
Philippine Jeepney | © Davocano / Flickr

Tricycle

Again, this isn’t the cute little vehicle you used to pedal around your neighborhood as a child. A tricycle in the Philippines is another form of public transport made by attaching a motorcycle to a sidecar. It can fit anywhere from two to five passengers, depending on size and design.

“For a while”

This phrase is often used in the country’s service industry, and it means the exact opposite in the Philippines as it would in any other country. Don’t blow your top or get impatient when told to wait “for a while”, because instead of meaning you’ll be waiting for a long time, it means the person will get back to you in just a short while.

Mamser

Often joked about in the country, the term mamser is an amalgam of the words ma’am and sir, and is used in the service industry as a default way of greeting customers. So when you walk up to the counter of your local Jollibee, don’t be too surprised if you’re greeted with a, “Good morning, mamser! Welcome to Jollibee!”.

Nose Bleed

English-speaking foreigners will likely encounter this while conversing with Filipinos who are less adept with the English language. This is a term used in self-deprecating humor, and means the Filipino can’t keep up with the other person’s English, or has difficulty understanding his accent. It implies that the the Filipino has used up all his English vocabulary and is thinking so much, his nose might just begin to bleed—metaphorically, of course. Some foreigners could find this annoying and take it as rudeness (since a Filipino might just cut you off mid-sentence and say “wait, nosebleed”), but it’s really just a funny, self-mocking way of saying “I don’t understand”. So laugh along with them and just repeat yourself, preferably with simpler words.

Salvage

Another word that means the complete opposite when used in the Philippines is salvage. While it really means “to save” something, here, it means “to kill” someone, usually extrajudicially. This term was used widely during the Marcos dictatorship, when he ordered the deaths of a long list of people, without legal proof, cause, or trial. The term is believed to stem from the Tagalog word salbahe (derived from the Spanish salvaje), which means brutal or savage.

Aircon

Instead of the acronym A/C, the Philippines uses the abbreviation aircon to refer to air conditioning.

Ref

Instead of “fridge”, Filipinos use the abbreviation ref to mean refrigerator.

Traffic

If somebody asks you, “Is it traffic today?” instead of, “How’s the traffic today?”, don’t be so confused. Traffic is often used as an adjective in the Philippines, instead of the noun that it is. Traffic is often used to mean “heavy traffic”, so if a Filipino tells you, “Wow, it’s so traffic on EDSA today,” you’d be best taking a different route.

Open and Close (appliances/electronics)

Completely grammatically incorrect, some Filipinos make the mistake of using the words “open” and “close” to mean “switch on” and “switch off”. So when a Filipino tells you to “open the lights” and “close the aircon”, don’t begin taking home appliances apart.

Napkin

Aside from the piece of cloth used to wipe your mouth at the dinner table, napkin can also refer to sanitary pads for that time of the month.

High Blood

When a Filipino says he’s getting “high blood” amidst a stressful situation, don’t immediately rush him to the hospital. He’s probably not referring to his blood pressure. Instead, he’s likely trying to tell you he’s getting really angry and flustered.

Woman clenching sand in her fist
Woman clenching sand in her fist | © Denise Bentulan / Flickr