These 12 Filipino English Words Don't Mean What You Think

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.

Given how prevalent (and official) English is, there's actually a pretty consistent Filipino English standard.

However, just like in India and most other countries that adapted English during foreign rule, there are some differences that surprise US/UK English speakers.

Some Filipino English 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 or confusing.

Table of Contents

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, these are loanwords, not cognates, so they do not suggest that two languages are related--which, of course, English and Tagalog aren't.

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.

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.

(Even good, casual language apps like Filipino Pod 101 and Glossika Tagalog won't always share this kind of stuff!)

1. "Salvage"

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 almost certainly not an English loanword after all. It's close to the Tagalog salbahe, which comes from a 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.)

2. "Pirate"

US English: To attach and plunder a ship.

Filipino English: 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?"

(Note that it's almost always referred to as CR in both speech and text.)

4. "Village"

US English: A small town, often rustic or remote

Filipino English: A gated subdivision (as well as the US meaning)

Usage example: "After the storm, the park in our village was a mess."

5. "Dialect"

US English: A variant of a language that is mutually intelligible, but not identical

Filipino English: A separate language, usually still 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.)

6. "Fixer"

US English: Someone who takes care of things on your behalf, especially if they're legally dubious

Filipino English: Someone whom you bribe to cut through red tape, especially for government processes or applications

Usage example: "I heard that his passport application was rejected because he used a fixer!"

7. "Flyover"

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 phrase from the literal translation of sobrang traffic.)

8. "Birdie"

US English: Childish word for a little bird; also, a golf term

Filipino English: Penis

Usage example: "Our toddler pulled down his diaper, so everyone on the street saw his birdie!"

9. "Ref"

US English: Short for referee

Filipino English: Short for refrigerator

Usage example: "Remember to put the lumpia in the ref."

10. "Maniac"

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.")

11. "Commute"

US English: To travel to or from your workplace

Filipino English: To take public transportation

Usage example: "Are you going to drive or commute?"

12. "Nosebleed"

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, slightly self-deprecating expression that means someone is straining hard to understand your English, for example.)

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!”

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 these 12 caused me the most confusion or surprise at first.

Some you'll hear frequently, and others I really hope you don't!

But in spite of these unfamiliar usages of familiar words, they're more the exception than the rule. Your US (or UK) English will be understood perfectly well throughout the Philippines, and usually reciprocated.

But if you get to talking fast on an obscure or technical topic, beware that it might guessed it..."nosebleed"!

And 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.