Speak my language! (A couple of strange colloquialisms spoken in Natal)

While I continue to postpone writing that difficult post (about the effect of meth on my life and relationships) that’s sitting somewhere in the back of my head, I thought I’d share this quick, but hopefully amusing anecdote…

I spent the end of 2009 and beginning of 2010 in a rehab in Hillcrest, Natal. (Here in South Africa.) One thing that surprised me there was the odd colloquialisms spoken there… I can only remember two of them:

  1. “Hundreds!” – a figure of speech.
  2. “Gwaai” – a word that rhymes with “pie”

(Edit: My cousin, who is from Natal, has confirmed the word is “gwaai” like pie, not “gua” like guava.)

I’ll write about the less strange of the two, “Hundreds”, first. When I arrived there, I was in bad shape… I could barely remain awake for ten minutes, so I spent the first three days sleeping, except during meal times. On the fourth day, a man who used this figure of speech all the time, who happened to be an idiot, approached me..

Idiot: Are you feeling better?
Me: Yes.
Idiot: Hundreds! (Walks away, leaving me wondering what the fuck he means.)

I never did figure out the meaning of “hundreds”. It could be used to answer a question also, such as… Are you finished (with some task)? Hundreds! How are you? Hundreds! So it could mean anything from “100%” to “I’m done” to “I’m fine” to “Affirmative” to “That’s great”. That particular man managed to find a reason to use that expression in just about every sentence, which I found hilarious because it was really an unnecessary statement. Somehow I resisted the urge to ask him, “Hundreds of what?” every time he said it, or better yet come up with my own nonsensical phrases like “Thousands” or “Millions man, fucking millions”, which was really unusual for me, but I thought it best to limit my sarcasm to those people. But he wasn’t the only one who used that odd expression.

Then there was the way I first heard the word “gwaai”… After my first few days sleeping, I joined the rest of the inpatients for their “Life Skills” classes, and on the first break, I was approached by a guy named Joshua Naidoo, with the following conversation:

Naidoo: Have you got a gwaai?
Me: Huh?!?
Naidoo: A gwaai. Got one?
Me: What the fuck is a gwaai?
Naidoo: A gwaai, man. A gwaai!
Me: No, sorry. But good luck finding one.

I found it incredibly funny that since I did not understand the word, he thought somehow that repeating it louder would make it all crystal clear… It turns out a gwaai is a cigarette. He was asking if I could give him a cigarette. When I figured this out and explained to him and some others that this was not a word I had heard before, they didn’t believe me. They insisted that everybody calls cigarettes gwaais. And since everybody there was local, they really didn’t get that this word was not normal slang.

This is a small country… I’m still amazed that such odd and unique spoken language can crop up in one corner of this tiny place, and nowhere else. (I did try searching for the “gwaai” term online, but found no reference to it, so it seems this colloquial term is really limited to that area. Of course I have no idea how to spell it, but it exists neither in any list of slang words for “cigarette” anywhere, nor in a list of South African slang words.)

So if ever you visit Natal, and somebody asks you for a gwaai, now you know…

Update: Now that I have the spelling right… According to local company Gwaai Marketing, “gwaai” is “a Zulu word that loosely translated means ‘cigarette’”. Very loosely, I presume, but then it really is a colloquialism. I am still surprised that this word hasn’t found its way into any South African slang word lists.

5 thoughts on “Speak my language! (A couple of strange colloquialisms spoken in Natal)

    1. Now I see there is a South African company that distributes cigarettes… Gwaai Marketing.

      I’m guessing they are in Natal, but that they just named their company without realizing (or caring) that they used a local slang name for cigarettes. People in Natal don’t seem to know where the word comes from either.


    1. It was a good one.

      I regularly get disappointed on FB w.r.t. to African languages… I have quite a few friends who write statuses in their languages sometimes (although they usually write in English), which I do not understand, and FB can’t translate them. I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised that a local word didn’t make it very far online.

      In the old days of apartheid (when I grew up) we were limited to English and Afrikaans in school. I would much preferred to have ditched the Afrikaans and learned a “black” language… But I’m too bad at languages now (apart from English and a couple of programming languages) to pick one up now.

      Liked by 1 person

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