That’s just not what we mean.

Elton John wrote a song called “Sorry seems to be the hardest word”. He wouldn’t fit in around here. I wrote a post the other day about apologies, and a rather curious thing started to happen. People commenting on the post began claiming to be geographically sorry. Canada is a little remorseful. Australia is quite embarrassed and promises never to do it again. But the champions are the English. They are completely mortified and will do whatever they can to make it up to you.

The bulldog is the national dog of England. And it is very, very sorry.

The bulldog is the national dog of England. And it is very, very sorry.

My sense of patriotism began to stir. You are all just a bunch of amateurs. South Africa is the sorriest place on earth! If we don’t say sorry at least three times in every conversation we have, we are exiled to Perth, Toronto or London to learn the basics before being allowed back in.

But then I began to think about it. We aren’t the sorriest. We don’t even crack the nod for the semi-finals. Because most of the time we are not sorry at all. That word just means something different here. Or a few different things. Or nothing at all. Allow me to demonstrate.

A married couple is sitting in a restaurant, poring over their menus. After a moment, a waiter ambles up.

“Sorry, are you guys ready to order?”

Unfortunately, the man has been playing with his steak knife, and didn’t hear him properly.


“I was just ask…..”


The steak knife has slipped between the silly buggers fingers, impaling itself in the top of his foot and severing some small but remarkably productive veins.

It happens. Sorry.

It happens. Sorry.

The noise and the bright, shiny colours are enough to attract a small crowd. Suddenly a large, grey haired man approaches and begins to jostle his way to the front.

“Sorry. I’m a doctor. Let me through. Sorry.”

As he removes the sodden shoe and tries to staunch the flow of blood, the waiter looks down sadly and shakes his head.


Nobody in that little scene was apologetic at all. Nobody even did anything to anyone else. But everyone was very sorry. Not “sorry” sorry, but “I wasn’t part of this conversation and now I’m going to start talking” sorry. “I beg your pardon, I didn’t catch what you said” sorry. “Get out of my way” sorry. “That looks bloody sore” sorry.

And when we really want to express remorse? We blame it on apartheid and move swiftly along.
Lying in bed later that night, I began to think about this. What other words do we use in a way that leaves the rest of the world a little confused? Not South African words, like pap, or eish!, or bliksem, but words than any English speaker in the world would think they recognised, but just don’t work the same round here. I found a few.


Picture the scene. You are a man (How cool is that! All of a sudden you can read maps, but you don’t know how to replace a roll of toilet paper when the old one is finished). You are standing at the front door, keys in hand, looking down at your watch. You turn to the open bedroom door.

“It’s time to go, Honey. The traffic was fairly bad this evening, and this is a very important dinner.”

“Don’t worry,” comes a cheerful response from the depths of the bathroom, “I’ll be there now.”

If you live anywhere else in the world, you can let out a sigh of relief. You’re going to make it. If you live in South Africa, go and pour yourself a drink. Start a game of solitaire on your phone. Because in that context, now does not mean now. It means later. If the people fixing your car say it’s going to be ready “just now”, go and find yourself a coffee shop. And if you call your son in for supper and he says he’s coming “now now”, it may be time to rethink your policy on corporal punishment, because that means the little bugger isn’t coming at all.

But he said he was going to call me back now now.

But he said he was going to call me back now now.

How is it?

Or rather howzit. Strictly speaking, this means “how are you?” But under no circumstances should you tell the kind enquirer how you are. That would be very rude. The only acceptable response is “Howzit.” There is no question here. That’s just how we say hello.

If you think you are now ready for a simple South African greeting ceremony, you aren’t. We might still catch you out with a simple “Howzit. How are you?” The only acceptable response here is “Fine, and you?” You can be lying in a ditch, covered in blood, with a broken bone sticking up through the skin of your forearm, and the correct response is still “Fine, and you?” One more “Fine”, and the formalities will be taken care of, and you can move on to discussing your dire need for an ambulance.

Fine, and you?

Fine, and you?


Everywhere else in the world, shame is a bad thing. It is a negative emotion, shot through with guilt and embarrassment. Not here. Here it is a sweet thing to say to someone going through a bad time. In the scenario above, once you have both established that you are fine, the South African might get round to asking what happened.

“I was riding my bike round the corner,” you might say, “when a marriage guidance councillor chased a goat into the road. I swerved to avoid him (the goat, not the marriage guidance councillor), but I lost track of the road and found this ditch instead. And then a one-legged mugger took one of my shoes.”

There are safer ways to ride your bike around goats.

There are safer ways to ride your bike around goats.

“Oh.” The South African will say, and then pause to mull over your predicament. “Shame.”

It’s an expression of sympathy. It’s what we say to people who are getting a divorce because their marriage guidance councillor ran off after a goat, or who failed their exams, or caught a tropical disease.

But it’s not only that. It’s what we say when you show us a puppy. Or your new baby. As you hold her up in the crook of your arm, snuggled down in a nest of blankets, the South African will look you in the eye and say “She’s just beautiful.”

Then he will look down at her, and stretch out a finger to place in her tiny hand, and his face will break into a goofy smile, and he will say, quietly, more to himself than anyone else “Shame.” Do not be offended. This is a good thing.



Is it.

If you are talking to a South African, and present him with a bald fact, like “A One-legged mugger stole one of my shoes.” You might find yourself rewarded with the response “Is it?” Yes. Yes it is. The South African knows that it is. You don’t need to tell him that it is. He is just expressing mild surprise.


A robot.

A robot.

Also a robot. The resemblance is uncanny.

Also a robot. The resemblance is uncanny.

If you ask for directions here, you are sure to be told something like “Go straight down the road until you reach the first robot, then turn right.” Do not be alarmed. A robot is just a traffic light. And it probably won’t even be working.

There are others, too. If a South African asks you to give them a tinkle, you are not dealing with some horrifying pervert. They just want you to phone them. If they ask you for a rubber, take a deep breath and pass them the eraser, and you’ll be just fine. If they tell you they are going to flog their goat, don’t call the SPCA. They are just going to sell it. Probably to a marriage guidance councillor.

The secret to any good relationship is communication. Excuse me while I high-five my goat.

The secret to any good relationship is communication. Excuse me while I high-five my goat.

That’s just a start. But you should be just about ready to talk to one of us without fear of embarrassment now. Just don’t take anything for granted or you might just come unstuck. If a South African says he’s going to scale your ladder just now, don’t just say “is it”. Lock it away. He’s going to steal it. He’ll probably try to flog it at the robots later, and that would be a shame. Sorry.

Don't worry. I'll bring it back now now.

Don’t worry. I’ll bring it back now now.

57 thoughts on “That’s just not what we mean.

  1. Omg. Love this post! I lived in Namibia for two years and remember ALL these! People used to greet us with Howzit then say they’d be over now now. It took us forever to get used to just now and now now. O such brilliant memories!

  2. bramkamp says:

    Good ideas on language – no we don’t often say what we mean, and culture does interfere with clear expression – Thank you for liking Newbie Writers Guide!

  3. spzkaz says:

    You have just pointed out how many times in one day I will say “Sorry”. Strictly habit, but annoying to me even.

  4. alohaleya says:

    this literally made me laugh out loud. thank you, i love learning hilarious new things! 🙂

  5. floridaborne says:

    Thanks for a great laugh!

    I’m half way around the world and half way up from you. Here we’re treated to ridiculous sayings like “my bad” (a stupid way to say you’re sorry) or “I’ll be there in a minute” when clearly it’s more like an hour.

    One of the older sayings that might bring a chuckle to you: “He’s just trying to get your goat.” It’s a strange way of saying a guy is trying to make you angry, but after reading your blog I’m wondering if that may be the case in South Africa.

    I loved the pictures! One thing I have to differ with you on–real women can read maps! 🙂

    • 23thorns says:

      When we get each others goats it’s more of a commercial transaction (or outright theft).
      Strangely enough all of your guys expressions sound completely normal to us, because we all grew up watching American TV and movies.

      • floridaborne says:

        Nowadays, it’s more along the lines of Canadian TV–especially if you like science fiction.

  6. blitzpillager says:

    O’ this is hilarious, sorry I could not read this sooner, but I did not know about it until a few minutes ago. Loved it!

  7. Howzit my China? That man got a knife in his foot? Shame. Don’t you want to pass me the sponspeck? We can eat it while we watch the footie on the tele. And please, please, do not Chan Kak inde Millies!
    Love your posts!

  8. Liana says:

    I am only sorry I didn’t know about 23thorns before today…wow…FOLLOWING!!

  9. 1hundredworks says:

    This is awesome! Have you heard of George Carlin? Your style reminds me of him a lot. Rubber means the same here in India, the rest thankfully not!

    Akhil Kalsh.

    • 23thorns says:

      I think part of what makes South African English rich is that we have so many other languages here. More than ten!
      And if I remember correctly, you guys have more than eight hundred. ?Your version of English must be very rich indeed!

  10. backinhighheels says:

    So true lol

  11. Hello! Just FYI here, I nominated you and your wife for The Sunshine Award. The info for accepting is below, if you’re into these things 😉 :

    Have a nice day!

  12. fciprian2013 says:

    I just discovered your blog and decided to follow. You are hilarious. I blogged about your blog on my blog:

    I’m very sorry.

    • 23thorns says:

      Excellent! A blogger who blogs about blogs. If I ever blog about bloggers who blogs about other bloggers’ blogs, I’ll blog about your blog. That way you can blog about bloggers who blog about bloggers who blog about other bloggers’ blogs.
      I’m going to have a bit of a lie-down now.

  13. bcpkid says:

    Hi 23thorns,
    I’ve decided to follow any WordPress members who commented on or liked my past posts, in an effort to be more community minded. Don’t feel compelled to hit me back, but if you do I hope you enjoy and say hi.
    bcpkid (pettiplays)

  14. wineonmymind says:

    Thanks for liking my recent blog post! Enjoyed reading yours! Cheers!!

  15. gkm2011 says:

    The Spanish do not apologize, at least very little and when I lived there I was constantly saying sorry. Didn’t work so well.

  16. javaj240 says:

    I’ll have to save this post on the off chance that I ever find myself face to face with South Africans.

  17. Sick post. We Aussies have been known to flog things too, but usually down at the pub. Shibby and no wuckers. (she’ll be right and no wucking forries).
    Glad to hear that’s not your foot wound too and I agree with Fran, more posts. YAY! 😀

  18. narf77 says:

    Wait a minute…I just put 2 + 2 together and got something approximating Nirvana! 23Thorns + unemployment = more posts? MORE POSTS! :). No shadenfreude intended but your 30 dear constant readers are probably not going to complain about a few extra posts dropped neatly into their in-baskets. Exiled to Perth? No WONDER there are so many South African’s in Western Australia! One of my best friends in lower school came from somewhere around there, no doubt cast out by a complete disregard for the appologies quotient your masterful country insists on. “I am a man” (give me a bit of time to take that in…it will involve a complete mindshift, gear change and a quick stop to wind the window of my brain down and throw out themanual… there…done… revved, beer in hand and ready to go mate!)… “HA!” Howzit has become a regular statement in our household after a good old Aussie pisstake of a South African doctor called “Dr Rudy” and I just have to ask you at this point…is it true that New Zealanders are just low grade South Africans? Sort of like the gungy green bits on the bottom of gold? The accent is a real give away! Did you (like our own Old Country) lure them all onto a large sailing “shup” a century or so ago with the false hope of going on a “pucknuck” and dump them as far away from South Africa as you could sail without falling off the end of the earth? Your secret is safe with we Aussies (although you might want to admit to it behind the safety of parenthisis so that our old mate in N.Z. can’t pick up on it 😉 )
    I get the sneaking suspicion that you have just scored yourself a part time job with the South African tourist board…one could even begin to think that you are promoting the eccentricities of the everyday Sarth Efrican to we “Other Worlders”…fair do’s mate, you sent all your weeds over to us already and it’s going to take a fair bit of sucking up to get us to head on over there and spend our Aussie dollars (and Canadian, English, and N.Z. moola) in your fair country! Take back the cane toads, the bitou bush, the bone seed (the BLOODY bone seed!) and we might just think about it!

    • 23thorns says:

      I protest! We didn’t send you any of those things- they’re from somewhere else. All we sent you was the arum lilies, which are pretty, and those bogans from Perth, which are not. In exchange we got miles of bloody Port Jackson, and gum trees, gum trees, rising ’til they touch the sky.
      As for the accent thing, to us, you guys and the Kiwis are indistinguishable. We have pieknieks, but I will confess to spotting the odd shup off Durban.

  19. That made me laugh!
    I still think the Brits can give you a run for your money with the word ‘Sorry’. All the things you mentioned would apply to us, and also – What about the situation where someone is coming in the opposite direction along the path and bumps into you because they are not looking where they are going? You are the one who says sorry, not the one who did the careless thing!

  20. Joel says:

    Funny post. I’m American. Of course I’m sure we have a huge number of words or expressions that must puzzle the rest of the English speaking world. We generally do our best to butcher what is already a fairly challenging language. When I read the first part, about “sorry,” I heard it in my head with a British accent. I suppose I’m watching just enough BBC.

  21. lylekrahn says:

    So true. I’m sure every place needs a translation guide to navigate true meanings. There are quite a few similarities around here like “I’ll be right there” and “how are you.” The best example though is when someone conducting business says “no problem” – that’s when you know there’s going to be issues.

  22. Art Brûlant says:

    Another great read. Thanks. Yes we do say sorry a good deal here in Canada, but you folks do beat us there. Mind you that may be different in B.C. or P.E.I. to here in Quebec

  23. Marcia says:

    All the way through this wonderfully amusing and informative post, I had one question burning…BURNING, I say…in my mind–is that YOUR foot with the ghastly steak knife wound in it? Sorry. Just being nosy. (Or as they say in Pittsburgh, PA, U. S. of A., “nebby.”) I was so worried about his, I couldn’t even concentrate on flogging my goat down at the corner robot. Shame.

    • 23thorns says:

      Sorry. That is not my foot. I once nearly took off a toe while trying to cut open a coconut with a salad knife, and since then, have always worn steel capped boots around food.

    • pussonalamp says:

      I’m slightly (amazed is not the word) to learn that a Geordie (Tyneside, North East England) expression for nosey, i.e. nebby, is also Pittsburghian. Mr Thorns enables, as usual..

      • Marcia says:

        Hi, Puss! Isn’t that interesting! After reading roughly 250 books set in Tyneside, you’d think I’d know that, but…I didn’t. I assumed it was a variation on something German, since so much of Pittsburgh culture is what’s called “Pennsylvania Dutch,” here. (“Dutch” in this case being a corruption of “Deutsch.” or Deutschland). So many of the expressions associated Pittsburgh are.

        Nebby is very commonly used, at least in the Millvale area of Pittsburgh, where I (being a misplaced southern gal from Florida) heard it explained the first time when a neighbor was referred to as Betty Neb-Neb. I think it’s pretty interesting that its a Geordie expression. Thanks for that information. Now I’m wondering about other expressions in use there. You don’t happen to call sideburns “ear sluggers,” do you? That’s one that sticks in my mind these many years later.

  24. justmusing says:

    So you were away for a while ‘cas you have been working on this nice post ; ) thank you!

  25. Sue says:

    So entertaining, as usual. I love reading these informative and educational tidbits, with their unusual glimpses of a place, for me, at the opposite side of the earth.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s