by Gwee Li Sui
Writing about “siol” is teruk because it’s sibei misunderstood. Of hampalang end-particles, it’s easily the most controversial one. Some Singlish speakers just won’t use it while others are blur like sotong about how to use it. First off, “siol” isn’t from “siol bak chang” or hot dumpling ha – because that’s “sio”, you kutu. I mean the “siol” in lines like “Hey, long time no see siol!” or “Your England cannot make it siol!” or “Someone kena buak gooyoo siol!”
In all these examples, more people prefer “sia” – and that one also can. “Siol” and “sia” seem to do the same thing even though sometimes act-big goondus anyhowly bedek that there are im-por-tant differences. But then they cannot say what or their explanations are so koyak until kena sai! Just take it from me: “siol” and “sia” are interchangeable, OK. You not happy, form an interest group, write a petition, and send to your MP please. The difference is more in hearing sensation than in meaning lah. You can say “Someone lawa-lawa, got iPhone 7 siol!” or “Someone lawa-lawa, got iPhone 7 sia!” – both pass. No fat!
“Siol” and “sia” are used sama-sama to express being taken aback by disbelief or by envy. So you may be impressed to say “The new kid super-hardworking siol!” or jealous to remark “That MP got two cars sia!” – either way is steady. Now, theory has it that “siol” came from the Malay word “siul”, meaning poon pee pee or whistle. But you’ll catch no ball with this notion of whistling should you hear an exclaimed “siol”. Yes, “What talking you siol?” may mean “What the whistle do you mean?” – but what the fiak can that mean? So “siol” looks like a euphemism, something said in place of what cannot be said… like how “your brother” in Singlish refers to… err… some guy’s brother.
No wonder another theory pops up to claim that “siol” came from trying not to say “sial” and be piaked by one’s lao peh or mama or makcik. In Malay, “sial” means damn or damn suay and is a hum-tumable bad word. Interestingly, it’s sibei likely that “sia” also came from “sial” – since, given how identical they are, it’s logical what! If all this is true, then we have a shiok case where, in order to siam saying something vulgar, Singaporeans have created not one but two substitute words! Kawan-kawan, that’s how polite and cultured and respectful (some say anal) we are! Boomz!
That “siol”, “sia”, and “sial” are so similar hasn’t stopped half-past-six experts from trying to set them apart, often in siow ting tong ways. For example, some argue that you can note positive versus negative uses… but, alamak, where got? I can say for positive effect “She stylo-milo siol!” or “sia!” or “sial!” – meaning “She’s unbelievably stylish!” – but also for negative effect “He pumchek siol!” or “sia!” or “sial!” – meaning “He’s utterly crushed!” Hampalang can lah, people! Even if granted there could have been differences once, it’s no longer the case today, thanks to how we all anyhow-anyhow.
“Siol” is nonetheless kindest on the ear of these three end-particles. It’s soothing, makes you relak most, and sounds least harsh and even cute! In fact, you may get sibei different responses depending on which you use, like, let’s say, you remark to your kid when picking him or her up in school, “Your teacher quite chio siol!” Exclaim “Your teacher quite chio sia!”, and your geena may feel that you’re somewhat low-crass and gleefully ti ko. But never, in front of chiwren, say “Your teacher quite chio sial!” – because that’s… cannot lah! Wait sekali a parent or teacher or, worse, the principal hears you, then uh oh siol.
Featured image by Sean Chong.
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