Pop Cantonese: Word of the Month – 加油 Add Oil

After the intensive holiday season, some of us may need a bit of a push to get going on our new year’s resolutions. For those who have already seen their resolutions start and fail, it’s a good thing we’re in Hong Kong, where we always get a second chance: Chinese New Year. At the end of the month, the Year of the Rooster will let good intentions start anew. Most of us will need a bit of help, or as we say in Cantonese, a bit of ga1 yau4 (加油).

A common way of providing encouragement in Cantonese, the idiom literally means “add oil.” Like adding fuel to the engine of a car, the aim is to provide an extra oomph. It was the official cheer of the Chinese Olympic team in 2008, and it is frequently used in racing and sport competitions and has been used time and again to support students before their exams.

The term was mainly used exclusively in Chinese until recently. With the increasing use of text-based online communications, however, many young bilingual Hongkongers are taking a short cut and using the English translation instead.

“Add oil” as a Hong Kong English term is gaining international familiarity since the Umbrella Movement of 2014 led to the creation of political art pieces influenced by popular culture. One of the projects led by a collective called Stand By You: “Add Oil” Machine (並肩上: 打氣機) involved projecting messages of support from around the world onto key government buildings. It was a way of encouraging protesters to keep it up, and it revisualised Hong Kong’s cityscape by mixing urbanism, public culture and the defiance of authority. It also brought the term “add oil” to the global scene.

As with many idioms, the term’s origins are disputed. Some say that ga1 yau4 or jiā yóu in Mandarin comes from the Pali or Sanskrit word for victory which is jayo or jayati. Words sounding like chaiyo or jiayou and meaning victory or “hurrah” are found all over Asia including in Thai, Hindi, Khmer and more. This theory implies that the Chinese version is actually a transliteration of the original sound and does not come from adding oil to anything.

The Chinese of course have a legend explaining its source. During a walk through a plum tree forest, a Ming Dynasty general, Liu Bowen, finds the tomb of the greatest general of all time, Zhu Geliang. After his men open the tomb, Liu finds a note next to Zhu’s sarcophagus. Beside it stood a flickering lamp, about to run out of oil. On the note, it said, “Old Liu, add oil, add oil.” Amazed by Zhu’s clairvoyance, Liu kowtowed three times with profound respect for the general. Since then, the phrase has been used to embolden people.

A more direct urban legend and perhaps the most commonly cited as the source of the idiom involves car racing. “Add oil” implies stepping harder on the gas pedal, giving the car more speed and power. During one of the first Macau Grand Prix races, the Ferrari team was moments away from winning when the car suddenly stopped moving. The furious driver asked the mechanics for the cause, to then be told, there was probably too much fuel and not enough oil. The driver exclaimed, “Well, add oil! Add oil!” while the spectators started chanting “Add oil! Add oil!” From then on, the audience began cheering with the very same phrase.

So take your pick: Sanskrit, Ming Dynasty or the Macau Grand Prix. either way, the Year of the Rooster is giving us a second chance to step on it. Add Oil!

Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese. 

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