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Strictly Speaking | Atas

English has always extended itself with words from other languages. Recent additions to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) have a certain East Asian flavour to them. Literally, in some cases, with the inclusion of plenty of culinary words such as siu mei (marinated meat in Hong Kong) or sotong (squid or cuttlefish in Singapore and Malaysia). Similarly, familiar English words take on new meanings in foreign settings. For example, blur, in Singapore English, becomes an adjective meaning ‘confused’ or ‘ignorant’. Other innovations come from local languages taking on new meanings and functions, like the Malay word atas. In Singapore English, this is an adjective – the OED’s definition is “sophisticated, highbrow” or in negative usage “arrogant, snobbish” – whereas in Malay it is a preposition and adverb meaning “over” or “above”. Now it’s even turning into a verb, with a recent advert for McDonald’s range of gourmet atas burgers carrying the slogan “Now everyone can atas”. It’s no coincidence that a ubiquitous corporation like McDonald’s is pushing the boundaries of global English. Some might argue that this represents a kind of cultural imperialism; others that it really is just all about food.

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