SinGweesh on Wednesday: Teruk
by Gwee Li Sui
THE words “teruk” and “jialat” have very different origins, but they are brotha-brotha in Singlish. At some point in the history of their use, their meanings started to coincide, and then they became interchangeable. So we now say “The traffic jam is teruk”, but we also say “The traffic jam is jialat”. We may say “The recruits kena tekan teruk-teruk” or we may say “The recruits kena tekan jialat-jialat” – both also can. Their meanings are sama-sama.
“Teruk” means tough or serious in Malay and is used in Singlish in a number of ways. It can refer to how siong or difficult a task is or how horrigible or buay tahan an outcome is. It can also point to very harsh conditions. Which meaning is in play is decided largely by the context it’s used in. So a remark like “The surprise test sibei teruk!” can be quite ambiguous without more info one. It can mean that the test is tough or that the test results kena sai. It can also mean that the general climate involving the test is what kena sai.
“Jialat” comes differently from Hokkien and is more poetic by comparison. But it has nothing to do with eating lard or the Malaysian cartoonist Lat hor. The “lat” here refers to strength. So “jialat” means strength-eating – or rather energy-sapping, like how listening to some taxi-driver rant on and on about PAP is sibei energy-sapping. But “jialat” doesn’t seek to say that a task is tiring, draining, or sian jit puah; the right Singlish word for that is “siong”. “Jialat”, like “teruk”, points to the gravity or impact of something.
So, when a said thing is teruk or jialat, it’s awful, gloomy, no-joke. It’s serious crap, like how a bad case of lao sai is serious crap literally – that, by the way, is teruk or jialat too! You can, in fact, go on to suggest a more active or dynamic form of terukness, and you do this by simply repeating the Singlish word twice. Interesting, right? When you wanna call for a kid to be punished until there’s serious consequence (but dun lah), you say “Whack the si geena until teruk-teruk!” or “Whack the si geena until jialat-jialat!”
Here’s where it gets complicated. Repeating also does another thing: it lets you turn “teruk” or “jialat” from an adjective into an adverb – like magic! So “teruk-teruk” in “Whack the si geena until teruk-teruk!” isn’t quite the same as in “Whack the si geena teruk-teruk!” The latter means punishing the kid severely now. See how “teruk-teruk” functions as an adverb this time? It further highlights a shiok aspect of many a Singlish adjective, which is its versatility. In England, “solemn” may become an adverb as “solemnly”, but “terrible” becomes “terribly” and not “terriblely” – why ha? But, in Singlish, you just repeat the adjective, extend “teruk” to “teruk-teruk” or “jialat” to “jialat-jialat”, and – wala! – it’s an adverb.
We must ask finally: got differences between “teruk” and “jialat” or not? This is a good, tok kong question. The short of it is got, but the differences are quite subtle lah. Your Singlish must be damn steady to understand why I say that it’s more about fweeling than about actual sense. “Teruk” is more solid than “jialat” and signals real difficulty whereas “jialat” includes imagined, potential, and future difficulty and is thus more adaptable. In normal use, nobody really cares about their differences, but, if you wanna how lian-how lian, try using “teruk” just to show that you can be specific lor.
Featured image by Sean Chong.
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