Zimbabwean Slang Words: A Primer

Zimbabwean slang wordsZimbabwean slang words are a blend of British English, Afrikaans, and Shona. (Shona is the dominant native language in Zimbabwe.)

What’s the link between UK English and Zimbabwe? It’s a former British colony and neighbor to South Africa (where English and Afrikaans are spoken).

The use of these slang words, or at least an understanding of their meaning, crosses most age and racial barriers.

Use them on your next visit to Zimbabwe and you’ll sound like a local!

Ten Popular Zimbabwean Slang Words

This list could easily be longer, but here are ten Zimbabwean slang words (in alphabetical order):

1. Clup

(Rhymes with cup)

Clup is a complex word that can mean “to hit,” “to beat,” or “to accomplish.”

It comes from the Afrikaans word klop, one meaning of which is “to beat.”

You can use clup as either a verb or a noun. For example, one person might say to another, “I’m going to clup you,” meaning quite literally, “I’m going to hit you.”

However, if you use clup when referring to a race or a game, it means “win” (e.g., “I’m going to clup you” is equivalent to “I’m going to win.”)

A Zimbabwean uses clup as a noun in place of “a hit” or “a smack.” One can give “a good clup” to a naughty puppy or to a television that isn’t working correctly.

The past tense clupped describes the victorious completion of a task: “I clupped my homework” or “I clupped that marathon.”

2. Commuter

Zimbabwean slang words, commuter

Commuters inside a commuter?

In American English, a commuter is a person. But in Zimbabwean slang, it can be a thing.

In fact, the word is a shortened version of commuter omnibus, the most popular mode of public transportation in Zimbabwe.

A person travels “by commuter” or “takes a commuter” to get somewhere. One uses the word in much the same way that Americans use “taxi” or “cab” in the U.S.

3. Gwash

(Rhymes with “wash”)

The English language doesn’t have a direct equivalent to this Shona-derived Zimbabwean slang word. The word gwash means “unrefined” or “unsophisticated.” In fact, a person, thing, or activity can be described as gwash.

If I’m not wrong, gwash was originally used to describe things or people from rural areas. Younger generations now use it as an unflattering term for any person or thing not as polished or refined as it could be.

Note that Zimbabweans use gwash more in good humor than out of disdain.

4. Is it?!

Zimbabweans use this phrase in the same way that Americans use “Oh, really?”

Part rhetorical question, part statement, the phrase Is it?! can be a conversation filler, a point of exclamation, or in response to an interesting piece of news.

Zimbabweans usually don’t enunciate the two words clearly. The phrase sounds much more like one word: Izit?!

5. Just now

Just now and the closely related now now are some of the most important Zimbabwean slang words to learn.

Africans are well known for their relaxed approach to time. This is often a point of contention between persons from African cultures and those from more time-oriented Western cultures.

Knowing the meaning of these two phrases may help to avoid unnecessary frustration on your next trip to Harare.

You may hear both I’ll be there just now and I’ll be there now now. But there’s a very clear distinction in meaning.

Just now refers to a period of time in the near—but not too near—future. It includes a time range anywhere from thirty minutes to a few hours later. (By contrast, American English speakers use “just now” to refer to something that happened in the immediate past.)

Now now refers to the immediate future, i.e., a few minutes’ time. Say I’ll be there now now to a friend and she’ll know that you mean “in less than ten minutes.”

6. Kenge

(Pronounced KEN-geh)

Kenge is another of many Zimbabwean slang words that come from Shona.

The word kenge translates directly as “good.” But you can use the word to describe anything from a set of circumstances, a journey, or an individual’s well-being.

Zimbabweans may use kenge after hearing a positive answer to a question, just as Americans might say “Oh, good.”

zimbabwean slang words, thumbs up with flag of zimbabwe

7. Shame

Zimbabweans use shame or oh, shame as a shortened version of the phrase “What a shame.”

After a Zimbabwean hears about something bad such as an illness or a car accident, he would respond, “Shame.” This is an empathetic response to misfortune.

Nonnative Zimbabweans, though, confuse the word with the meaning of “ashamed.” (Think of the phrase “For shame!”) However, if you hear people using it, rest assured that it is a compassionate expression.

8. Skwonk

(Rhymes with plonk)

Skwonk, meaning “physically crooked,” is a slang word deeply embedded in the Zimbabwean culture.

Several generations, notably the older white generations, use the word, leading me to believe that it was introduced during the days of British rule in the country.

You might hear someone talk about a swonk path or a picture frame hanging skwonk on the wall.

9. Slops

No, slops doesn’t refer to unappetizing food put out for pigs. In the context of Zimbabwean slang words, slops are “flip flops.”

For older generations, though, the word is often pejorative, as slops are more widely worn and appreciated by the youth of the country.

10. Tsano

Another of the Shona-derived Zimbabwean slang words, tsano officially refers to a brother-in-law. However, people use tsano colloquially as a respectful word for “friend.” It’s not as informal as the word “brother” or “buddy.”

zimbabwean slang words, elephants playing, example of "tsano"

Zimbabwean slang, in addition to revealing something about the culture, highlights the nuances of language. A native English speaker doesn’t necessarily understand everything being said—even if it’s in English!

As you can imagine, there are many more Zimbabwean slang words beyond what I’ve listed here. But this list is a good starting point should you ever find yourself in my beautiful home country.

If you liked this post, then you might also like reading about how to swear in Dutch or in French.

To learn more about informal speech, read about relaxed pronunciation. Finally, check out what we’re calling the “new language barrier”—a lack of online content in thousands of languages.


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