The latest post at Joel’s Far Outliers links to interesting posts at Khanya and No-sword about insider/outsider terminology; all of it is worth reading and thinking about, but what particularly caught my Languagehat eye was the South African term makwerekwere, meaning according to one blogger simply ‘foreigners’ and to another “Black immigrants from the rest of Africa, especially Nigerians.” The ubiquity of the human need to have derogatory terms for the Other is endlessly depressing, but like Joel, I have a specific question: which language does makwerekwere come from? Steve of Khanya responded “Sorry, I don’t know the origin. It’s a piece of interlinguistic slang, as far as I am aware.” I’ve looked it up in my Zulu and Xhosa dictionaries, with no result. So: anybody know?


  1. There’s a SA joke about older white South Africans belonging to the whenwewere tribe: because they start so many sentences with “When we were in Rhodesia…” “When we were in Tanganyika…” etc.

  2. Matthew Austin says

    Although I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the entry, a quick Google returned this (pasted below, warts and all):
    “Makwerekwere is a derogatory name given to none tswana/sotho/sesarwa speaking black people by tswana speaking people. The name seems to have been derived from the way languages other than tswana sounds to the tswanas. These languages have a kwere.. kwere.. sound.”
    So, Setswana?

  3. It could be Afrikaans (as is the other term mentioned at Khanya, “gatvol”).
    It sounds a little like “maak werk” (werk becomes werrek in vernacular), which means “make work” in Dutch — must be similar in Africaans.
    There is also this post:
    suggesting it’s because the foreigners’ language grates on the ears like insects. So perhaps the word relates to a term for an insect sound.

  4. And this:
    in which it becomes amakwerekwere, pronounced ama-queer-queer, which could be an insect sound.

  5. Wiktionary etymology also states that it is onomatopoeic:

  6. Hi there,
    i’m writing a blog post about words that you only usually find together, or adjectives that are followed by only one noun. For example dulcet tones, you don’t often hear of dulcet swimming. Is there a name for this phenomenon? Can you think of any others, an email back would be do great

  7. rootlesscosmo says

    Rachel: what about “halcyon days”?

  8. mollymooly says

    Rachel: collocation

  9. SnowLeopard says

    In case anyone was wondering, Bleek’s Bushman Dictionary (1956) has no entry for “makwerekwere” but does have an entry for “kwerrekwerre” in a southern Khoisan languages (||ng, I think) meaning “to malign, blame, deride”. There’s a sample ||ng sentence illustrating its use, with too many diacritics and special symbols for me to transcribe, which is translated as “the baboons became angry with him, because he derided [kwerrekwerriten] them, he said that their foreheads resembled overhanging cliffs.” I suppose this is probably a coincidence, but it’s a fun sentence.

  10. John Emerson says

    Baboons are so touchy about those foreheads of theirs.

  11. I guess onomatopoeia, or “the name seems to have been derived from the way languages other than tswana sounds to the tswanas,” makes sense, since that’s exactly how “barbarian” originated.

  12. A couple of things about makwerekwere — it’s not pronounced “queer-queer”, but more like query-query, except insted of having a y at the end it has an e pronounced like the e in bed.
    One explanation I have heard, is that it comes from korekore — an ethnic and linguistic group in Zimbabwe. But that’s a guess.
    Another guess, my own this time, is that it comes from kwelakwela, which was once Zulu slang for a Black Maria, and the cops would say “kwela kwela”, which means “climb in, climb in”, and bus conductors used to say it to passengers when the bus was late — “hurry up and get in”.
    Perhaps it was something the cops said to illegal aliens when taking them off to deport them.

  13. I’ve seen one or two references, like this one below, to cockroaches, though I don’t know from which language:
    Our Blacks call them and other Black foreigners, makwerekwere – cockroaches.
    It does sound plausible – the duplication of “kwere” is sometimes found in the names of animals and reptiles.

  14. I should have said “eg of kwere”.

  15. The word “makoerekoere” (pl.) and “lekoerekoere” (sing.) do come from what we in Lesotho (and in Botswana, I think) seem to hear when Africans from other lands speak. It refers strictly to non-southern African Africans, and does not mean foreigners as such.
    I posted about this in 2004 here.
    Makwerekwere is the South African Sotho spelling, whereas Makoerekoere is the Lesotho Sotho spelling.

  16. Michael Prytz says

    Another linguistic note to this tragedy.

    Xenophobic thugs are going up to people in the streets of Johannesburg and demanding to know the Zulu word for various body parts: elbow, little finger, toe. If they do not get the right answer, they attack.
    This practice is quite literally an example of a Shibboleth.
    Zulu is the lingua franca of Johannesburg and much of South Africa. The word for “little finger” – ucikicane – must pose a particular challenge because it has two clicks in it. Most African languages do not have click sounds.
    This article gives more details:
    The 21-st century pencil test

    (In the bad old days of apartheid there was something called the “pencil test”. An official would decide on a person’s race by sticking a pencil in their hair. If it fell out, the person had “white hair”, and was therefore white. If it stuck, the person had “black hair”, and was therefore black.)

  17. When Typed into Google “makwerekwere” I received the response that it is a slang word for Foreigners in any country (being not their birth country).

Speak Your Mind