English is spoken throughout the Philippines, especially in Manila.
That’s nice for short-term visitors, since Tagalog is not easy for most foreigners to pick up.
But even without knowledge of Tagalog, there are so many English words in everyday speech that you may still understand more than expected.
English is prevalent in both official and everyday use, so a pretty consistent Filipino English standard has emerged.
However, just like in India and most other countries that adopted English during foreign rule, there are some differences that surprise US/UK English speakers.
In fact, certain words have turned into something completely different from what you’d expect.
We’ll look at why that’s the case, followed by 13 words that I’ve found especially interesting, confusing, or just plain fun.
Surprising Filipino English Words Worth Knowing
For the most part, Filipino English is very close to American English.
On paper, it’s essentially the same, and in speech, there are very few noteworthy differences.
But that’s not to say it’s identical. Some loanwords have taken on very different meanings that surprise both US and Filipino English speakers.
From an American perspective, they range from humorous to a little awkward to downright odd.
US English: To save something that was wrecked.
Filipino English: To kill(!), especially in the sense of extrajudicial killing or mob justice.
Usage example: “Authorities claim that drug dealers salvaged the journalist.”
(Ironically, this is probably not an English loanword after all. It’s close to the Tagalog salbahe, which comes from the Spanish word for “savage.” The coincidence is a little odd, but the similarity of a common English word might explain why it caught on in Filipino usage.)
US English: To attack and plunder a ship; to make and sell illegal copies of media.
Filipino English: The above, or to hire someone away from another company (like “poach” in American English).
Usage example: “IBM tried to pirate Juan from General Electric.”
3. “Comfort Room”
US English: (No such term.)
Filipino English: Bathroom.
Usage example: “Excuse me, may I use the CR?”
(It’s probably more common to hear “CR” than the full words.)
US English: A small town, often rustic or remote.
Filipino English: The above, or a gated subdivision.
Usage example: “After the storm, the park in our village was a mess.”
(Rural villages and gated-subdivision “villages” are polar opposites, so the context usually makes it clear which kind the speaker means.)
US English: A variant of a language that is mutually intelligible, but not identical.
Filipino English: It shares the linguistically correct sense above but is also casually used for a separate language within the Philippines.
Usage example: “I couldn’t tell what they were speaking, but it wasn’t Tagalog, so probably a dialect.”
(This one is a little touchy, but interesting. Years ago, the committee that standardizes the Filipino language decided to call the country’s other languages “dialects.” They’re actually separate languages, period, but the committee implied that they’re just non-standard—and therefore less prestigious—variants of Tagalog. Needless to say, that’s offensive to the tens of millions of non-Tagalog people in the Philippines. Calling standardized Tagalog “Filipino” is likewise controversial, especially farther from Metro Manila. That’s a topic for a different day, but it’s a great example of how seemingly dry, technical terms can have striking implications when misused.)
US English: Someone who takes care of things on your behalf, especially if they’re legally dubious.
Filipino English: Someone (often paid) who helps you cut through red tape, especially for government processes or applications.
Usage example: “I heard that his passport application was rejected because they found out he used a fixer!”
(These both share a sense of helping one circumvent authority. The American usage is broad and often pejorative, but a fixer doesn’t necessarily break the law. The Filipino usage is more specific and neutral, although a fixer in this sense is generally doing something illegal. The latter is often seen as pragmatic help with everyday bureaucracy—which gives you an idea of how opaque and byzantine the system can be!)
US English: Planes (usually fighter jets) passing over an event ceremonially.
Filipino English: A bridge, as for a road or train tracks.
Usage example: “It was very traffic on the Kalayaan Flyover!”
(This is one of the rare cases where Filipinos use the UK sense of a word instead of its US sense. By the way, “very traffic” is not a typo; it’s a common transliteration of the phrase sobrang traffic, both of which you’ll hear all the time in light of Manila’s horrendous congestion.)
US English: Childish word for a little bird; also, a golf term.
Filipino English: Childish or euphemistic word for penis.
Usage example: “Our toddler pulled down his diaper, so everyone on the street saw his birdie!”
US English: Short for referee.
Filipino English: Short for refrigerator.
Usage example: “Remember to put the lumpia in the ref.”
US English: A mood disorder with extreme highs and lows.
Filipino English: A sex addict or pervert.
Usage example: “I always stay away from him since my sister said he’s a maniac!”
(It’s usually pronounced with emphasis on the last syllable: “mahn-YAHK.” I heard this may have come from an older movie, but haven’t verified it.)
US English: To travel to or from work or school.
Filipino English: To take public transportation (to any destination).
Usage example: “Do you normally drive or commute to the mall?”
US English: When you bleed from your nose.
Filipino English: Same literal meeting, but idiomatically, it means to be overwhelmed and perhaps confused (usually with complex English).
Usage example: “Ayyy, so much English! Nosebleed!”
(I believe this comes from a 90s movie. It’s a joking and mildly self-deprecating way for the speaker to say he/she is straining to understand.)
13. “Rubber shoes”
US English: No such phrase, but most of us might take it to mean rain boots.
Filipino English: Sneakers or running shoes.
Usage example: “These heels are killing me. I wish I’d packed my rubber shoes!”
Why Are So Many Filipino Words Borrowed From English?
The US controlled the Philippines during the first half of the 20th century.
Ever since then, American cultural influence has been so strong it’s almost impossible to overstate.
Part of that is through media, of course, but part is also through migration, which leads to lots of back-and-forth between loved ones on either side of the ocean.
Among other effects, English has long since replaced Spanish as the language of prestige. But beyond showing education or social status, sometimes it’s just practical. A Tagalog word may not exist, especially for technical or specialized concepts, or the English phrase may just be more convenient.
Combining some English words with Tagalog grammar is called “Taglish,” and it’s how most Manileños speak casually.
Any way you slice it, Filipino English loanwords are abundant.
By the way, all the above are loanwords, not cognates, so they do not suggest the two languages are related (which, of course, English and Tagalog aren’t).
For instance, family in English and familia in Spanish are cognates because they developed from the same source. But pamilya in Tagalog is a loanword because it was borrowed directly from Spanish, then adapted to Tagalog phonetics.
Understanding Filipino English
From funny to a little uncomfortable, there are a few major differences between American and Filipino English.
There are plenty of others, but the ones above have caused me the most confusion or initial surprise.
However, they’re more the exception than the rule. Your US (or UK) English will be understood and often reciprocated.
But if you get to talking fast on an obscure or technical topic, beware that it might cause…you guessed it…”nosebleed”!
Speaking of vocab: if you want to understand and use more Filipino words, then be sure to read my full review of Glossika Tagalog. I love studying the language, but hate getting buried down in abstract grammar, so that app was a game-changer for my own learning.