Tok Pisin Idioms


Tok Pisin (TP) is a lingua franca and language of wider communication in Papua New Guinea.
In this article we introduce and examine a number of TP idioms that use body parts, numbers,
descriptors, verb phrases, compounds and other elements. Our presentation is intended to
supplement resources on TP that have previously described a similar category (idioms) using a
variety of strategies.

Body Parts

There is ample evidence that the reference to body parts plays largely in constructing idioms in
Tok Pisin (McElhanon 1977, 1978). We confirm this observation by dealing first with idioms
that reflect one’s personal appearance.

In TP the literal meaning of bun, as in examples (1)–(4) is equivalent to “bone” in English, i.e.,
the referent is part of the human body. The idioms that arise from bun refer to one’s physical
appearance, capturing the image of the long, thin shape of certain human bones, as illustrated in
examples (1)–(3), or the stereotypical scrawny village chicken, as illustrated in example (4):

1. bun nating (bone nothing) “a very thin person”
2. bun baik (bone bicycle) “a very thin person”
3. longpela bun man (long bone man) “a very tall person”
4. bun kakaruk (bone chicken) “a very thin or malnourished person”

In TP ai literally refers to the “eye” or “eyes” of a person or animal. In example (5), the focal
part of the idiom is gumi, generally “rubber,” which alludes to the stretching of someone who has
comparably “big eyes.” In example, the operative part of the idiom is pas “fastened or
closed,” referring to someone who cannot understand (“see”) or comprehend something. Finally
in example (7), ai is the object of the verb westim ‘to waste’, that is to use one’s eyes by looking
around needlessly. This phrase is often said in a jocular manner.

5. ai gumi or gumi ai (eye rubber) “big eyes”
6. ai pas (eye fastened) “imperceptive,” literally, one who is “blind”
7. westim ai (to.waste eye) “to look without accomplishing anything”

The lexeme lewa, as in examples (8)–(11), refers primarily to the “liver,” which is often
considered to be the seat of emotions in Papua New Guinean languages. So it can be associated
with various degrees of affection. In examples (9)–(11), the verbs katim ‘to cut something’,
brukim ‘to break open’, and kaikaim ‘to eat something’ refer to penetration into the emotional
center, while in example (12) the strong feelings for the particular person (for his/her own liver)
demonstrate the extent of the relationship.

8. katim lewa (cut the liver) “very attractive”
9. brukim lewa (break the liver) “very sorry”
10. kaikaim lewa bilong yu (eat liver of yours) “show extreme attraction/devotion to someone”
11. lewa bilong mi (liver of mine) “my true love”

A best friend can be referred to directly as one’s lewa, which can also be used as a reciprocal
term, such as between a father and his favorite son. A mother or someone who is frustrated or
heartbroken will refer to this state as in example (12a):

12a. lewa pen (liver pains) “brokenhearted”

In some cases an ellipsis of the body part lexeme occurs—indicated in the examples that follow
with square brackets. Note example (12), where windua ‘window’ indicates the space left from
losing a tooth. In example (13), the rounded fuselage of the helicopter corresponds to the
rounded belly of a person, and in example (14), the malleable saksak ‘sago’ stands for the
jostling movement of a pregnant woman’s belly.

12. [tit i gat] windua bilong em ([teeth have] window belong him/her) “broken off tooth”
13. [bel i olsem] helikopta ([stomach is like] helicopter) “pot-bellied”
14. [meri i] karamap saksak ([the woman] cover-up sago) “pregnant”

In many instances the body part is portrayed by a verbal phrase that describes some characteristic
of the person. In example, (15), the pawpaw is considered “soft,” hence it refers to a woman’s
breast that is not firm. In example (16), the person’s head of hair (the kunai) has been burned off,
indicating that the person is bald. A common pattern is to introduce a particular body part, then
comment about it. In such cases i is used as a copula, joining the body part with its characteristic
or description, as in (15 = soft, 16 = burned off, 17 = contaminated, 18 = dead, and 19 = with a

15. popo i mau (pawpaw soft) “woman’s breast”
16. kunai i paia (sword.grass it.has “bald-headed person”
17. kru i paul (brain contaminated) “drunk” or “crazy”
18. skin i dai (skin dead) “lazy/weak person”
19. man i gat namba (man who has number) “important person”

Iconicity in Numerals

The use of numerals in TP idioms iconically denotes the shape of the referent, as in example (20)
ten, oval-shaped, (21) foa, with only one vertical line, hence one-legged, or example (22) ileven,
where both nostrils have vertical lines of mucus. In example (23), namba seven is the brand
name for an axe, which of course can be used for sinister purpose. In example (24), the addressee
is confronted with a particular question, i askim yu ‘it asks you’, presumably whether the person
should be axed for something. In example (25) sikstin refers to a young unmarried girl, sixteen
being the age at which a girl is definitely eligible for marriage. In example (26), a man with two
wives has sikispela legs, those of his spouses and his own. On the other hand, an unmarried
person, as in example (27), is worth only ten toea, while a married person, as in example (28), is
worth double that amount—twenti toea, his own worth and that of his spouse. A prostitute, as in
example (29), is referred to by the apparent cost of her services at one time.

20. namba ten (number ten) “pregnant”
21. namba foa (number four) “one-legged” (also sometimes called “wansait” [one side])
22. namba ileven (number eleven) “running nose, both nostrils”
23. namba seven (number seven) “an axe”
24. namba seven i askim yu (number seven it asks you) “to make trouble”
25. namba sikstin (number sixteen) “a young woman”
26. sikispela lek (six legs) “man with two wives”
27. ten toea (ten coins/shells) “unmarried person”
28. twenti toea (twenty coins/shells) “married person”
29. tu kina meri/bus (two kina woman/bush) “a prostitute”

The PNG currency (kina[k] and toea[t]) denominations have idiomatic names representing the
objects on the bill or change:

30. 50t is called lip (leaf)
31. K1 hul mani (hole money)
32. K2 grin lip (green leaf)
33. K10 bul (bull)
34. K20 het bilong pik (head of a pig)
35. K50 has a number of terms: het bilong Somare (head of Somare), (35a), het bilong lapun
(head of an old man), or (35b) het bilong Maik (head of Mike).

Bingo games provide examples of creativity in specifying numbers, such as:

36. yu wantaim meri bilong yu “you and your wife”=two
37. tanim, tanim “6 or 9”
38. wanpela pato i slip long kiau “a duck sleeping on an egg”=20
39. ai glas “eye glasses”=8
40. tripela meri i gat bel “three women who are pregnant”=30
41. kus mambu (snot bamboo=11) or (41a) wari bilong mama “mother’s worry”

Descriptive Adjectives

In many TP idioms the syntax is Adj + N, where the N is often man ‘man’, or meri ‘woman’,
although the N may be omitted. In example (42), the would-be sophisticate is referred to as one
who wears shoes and socks. If the process of urbanization is complete, the person may be
referred to as susok man. While example (43) is transparent in terms of its source, hap from
“half,” the term gailiks is of unknown origin, but perhaps includes men who are “gay.” It
includes men who dress in style, with earrings, bracelets, perfume, and so on. Both examples
(44) and (45) and their synonyms refer to the strength of a man—‘iron’ on the one hand and
‘muscle’ or ‘firm skin’ on the other hand—that is men without fat. In example (46), a lipti
(leaf.tea) person is one who probably should be drinking coffee or beer instead of tea in order to
demonstrate his strength. Examples (47)–(47c) illustrate several common idioms for a prostitute.
In example (48), the adjective sotpela ‘short’ plus meri stands for “beer,” based on their
perception of women as short and stubby on the one hand and the shape of some beer bottles on
the other hand.

42. susok man (shoe.sock man) “urbanite”; Also (43a) taun man (town man) or even, in a very
derogative sense, (43b) strit dok (street dog)
43. hap man (half man) “stylish person”; Also (43a) stail man (style man) or (43b) gailiks man
44. ain man (iron man) “strong person”; Also (44a) raba man (rubber man) or (44b) taf man
(tough man)
45. skin tait man (skin tight man) “physically fit”; Also masel man (muscle man)
46. lipti man (leaf.tea man) “physically weak man”; Also (46a) slek man (unmotivated man),
(46b) skin dai man (man whose body is dead) and (46c) malumalu man (spongy or soft
man). Also perhaps in the same category is (46d) sikis man “sickly man”
47. pamuk meri “a prostitute”; Also (47a) raun (raun) meri (woman who travels around), (47b)
foa kofi meri (four coffee woman), and (47c) paia rais meri (fire rice woman)
48. sotpela meri (short woman) “SP beer” (beer variety with a short necked bottle)

The combination of an Adjective + N is productive in TP idioms. Example (49) demonstrates the
adjective nupela ‘new’ plus bilum, a metonymical form for an “unused woman.” Beer is colored,
so kala kala ‘color’ plus wara, as in example (50), again stands for beer. In example (51) and
(52), the ideas of a little toea “change” or samting ‘something’ both represent, by metonymy,
items of little worth.

49. nupela bilum (new net.bag) “young woman”
50. kala kala wara (color color water) “SP beer”
51. liklik toea (little shell) “little money/fortnight pay”
52. liklik samting (little something) “of little worth”

Transitive Verbs

Transitive verbs are generally marked by –im (Verhaar 1995:303), although this is by no means
always the case. The combination of V-im + Object is very productive in TP idioms, although it
is often not necessary to specify the object. Example (53) is one of the more common TP idioms,
used in situations where one is not at all sure of the outcome, but willing to try, such as asking
for a loan or a gift. The motivation of showing off is found in the idiom of putting one’s self (the
skin) forward to be noticed, as in example (54). The picture of a stick in example (55) represents
a cane to help someone who is old get about. At times the meanings can be somewhat forceful or
violent, such as in examples (56)–(58). However, in example (59) the meaning of paitim changes
from fighting someone to forcefully demanding a gift. In example (60), the purpose stated in
brukim is not to mechanically mistreat the bus, but rather to make it go so fast that it could break.
The more common idiom for driving fast is givim siksti, as in example (61). The use of painim
(look.for) in examples (62) and (62a) implies a certain degree of enticement which is revealed
only by the social relationships and sexes involved. Example (63) demonstrates that people can
like something so much that they would not share it with their closest relative, which would normally be expected. Finally, example (64) is another example of bun used figuratively. Here it occurs with taitim “to tighten something.”

53. traim tasol (to.try + just) “to try one’s luck”
54. putim skin (put + -im skin) “show off”
55. holim stik nau (hold + –im stick now) “to be very old”
56. nekim (neck + –im) “to beat up someone”
57. plorim (to.floor + –im) “to knock someone down”
58. wilwilim (to.pulverize + –im) “to twist someone’s ear or nose”
59. paitim mi (to.give + –im me) “give me something” (such as betel nut)
60. brukim bas (to.break + –im bus) “encourage one to drive fast”
61. givim siksti (to.give + –im sixty) “to go as fast as possible”
62. painim mi (to.find + –im me) “to flirt” or (62a) yu painim wok? (you find + –im work) “Do
you have something in mind?”
63. givim baksait long tambu (to.give + –im back to a particular relative) “delicious or tasty”
64. taitim bun (tighten + –im bone) “to renew one’s efforts”

Other examples of idioms that have transitive verbs with objects include utterances to the
addressee, as in example (65), where the relationship has temporarily “broken off.” Note also
example (66), where the driver ‘cuts’ the ‘corner’ of the road; and note example (67) where
‘water’ is a euphemism for “urine.” If one ‘sends’ a ‘letter’ as in example (68), it may be
euphemistic for “excreting feces.” Example (69) is a direct translation of a rather shopworn
English idiom into TP.

65. brukim yu (break you) “farewell expression”
66. katim kona (cut the corner) “to speed”
67. rausim/tromoim wara (throw.out water) “urinate”
68. salim pas (send a letter) “excrete”
69. lukim yu bihain pukpuk “see you later alligator”

Intransitive Use of kaikai

The word kaikai is generally a noun that refers to ‘food’, and therefore also figuratively to one’s
‘fruit’, as in karim kaikai “to be fruitful.” However, in this section we illustrate kaikai as an
intransitive verb in examples (70)–(77). Although examples (70) and (71) are similar in structure
and meaning, the latter has a meaning that is a bit more violent in nature. The object in example
(72) is reflexive, where the subject is “biting” his own teeth, with a meaning similar to the idiom
in English “to bite one’s tongue.” In example (73), biting of the lewa shows extreme anger, with
the add-on phrase indicating that the anger is incomplete. Example (74) is elliptical, with the
“wooden spoon” being the instrument and the object left unspecified. The final three examples,
(75)–(77) are similar in pragmatics, each serving as admonitions. The point is that either ‘rice’ or
‘brown rice’ stand for jail; hence the particular danger is implied.

70. kaikai das ( dust) “to be beaten up”
71. kaikai blut ( blood) “to be beaten up”
72. kaikai tit ( teeth) “to be angry”
73. kaikai lewa i no tan ( liver it not done) “anger is not finished”
74. kaikai long spun diwai ( with spoon wooden) “to follow the old customs”
75. nogut mipela kaikai rais long yu (don’t we-[exclusive] eat rice) “Don’t get killed (or we
will eat rice alone for you in sorrow).”
76. nogut yu kaikai braun rais (don’t you eat brown rice) “Don’t end up in jail.”
77. nogut yu kaikai rais blong tumora long nau (don’t you eat rice of tomorrow now) “Don’t
get yourself killed.”

Other Intransitive Verbs

Additional examples of intransitive verbs in TP idioms include verbs such as ‘go’, as in example
(78), and ‘become’ as in example (79) and (80). Sometimes verbs that imply an object and do not
have the so-called transitive marker may optionally take the transitive markers, as in examples
(81a), 82a), and (83a).

78. yu go spin (you go spin) “take a leisurely walk or journey”
79. yu kamap raskol (you appear criminal) “you have become a criminal”
80. yu kamap (you appear) “comment to attractive person”
81. sikirap (scrape.something) “anxious to do something” or (81a) sikirapim pait (start a fight)
82. das kirap (dust comes.up) “leave quickly” or (82a) kirapim das (arouse the dust)
83. tromoi anka (throw anchor) “to go steady” or (83a) tromoim huk (throw.out a hook)

Nominal Compounds

Compound nouns represent a frequent and highly productive method of lexicalizing TP idioms.
The following examples (84)–(95) represent the semantic pattern of X + Y, where X is generally
a kind or quality of Y:

84. bus kanaka (bush native) “unsophisticated person”
85. frok-bel (frog belly) “obese person”
86. pato-lek (duck legs) “waddling person”
87. tel lait (tail light) “person with face pimples”
88. blulang ( “a policeman”
89. sik dok (sick dog) “a weak person”
90. emti tin (empty tin) “person who speaks nonsense”
91. flat taia (flat tire) “exhausted person”
92. smok balus (smoke bird) “jet airplane”
93. pos opis (post office) “toilet”
94. kensa bokis (cancer box) “addicted smoker”
95. lus lain (lost clan) “one without friends/a loser”

On the other hand, there are nominal compounds with the pattern of X + Y, where Y is a kind or
quality of X:

96. waia lus (wire loose) “crazy or with loose morals”
97. maus wara (mouth water) “prattle on/a braggard/unreliable”
98. bel kaskas (stomach sores) “to be angry”
99. poket bruk (pocket broken) “out of money”

In some compounds the conjoined nouns seem equal in their semantic value:

100. kus mambu (head-cold bamboo-container) “runny nose”
101. kunai gras (sword grass) “bushy beard or hair”
102. nus gras (nose grass) “funny or nonsense”
103. maus gras (mouth grass) “mustache”
104. grasrut (grass.root)“ordinary person”

The general meaning of gras (as in examples, (101)–(104) may be ‘grass’, ‘hair’, or even
‘feathers’. In example (101), the unusual characteristics of one’s beard is brought into focus by
comparing it to kunai or ‘sword grass’.

Although the normal or unmarked meaning of gras is the plant category of ‘grass’, compounds
built upon the form are common:

105. gras nating (grass nothing) “weeds”
106. gras bilong solwara (grass from the ocean) “seaweed”
107. gras bilong bulmakau (grass for cows) “hay”

The construction gras bilong X generally indicates a body part:

108. gras bilong pisin (grass of birds) “bird’s feathers”
109. gras bilong sipsip (grass of sheep) “wool”
110. gras bilong kakaruk/paul (grass of chickens) “chicken feathers”

Verbal Compounds

Verb-im + N is the normal pattern for compounds that are built on transitive verbs. Some
examples now follow:

111. karim sik (carry sick) “to be sick”
112. karim pen (carry pain) “to bear pain”
113. karim blut (carry blood) “to menstruate”
114. tanim bel (turn stomach) “to change one’s mind”
115. tanim tok (turn talk) “to interpret”
116. stretim sik (straighten sick) “to heal”
117. stretim bet (straighten bed) “to make a bed”
118. stongim bel (strengthen stomach) “to get up courage”
119. pilim pen or (120a) karim pen (feel/carry pain) “to sympathize”
120. rausim bel or (121a) brukim bel (throw out/break stomach) “abort”

Contrastive Elements

Nouns may occur with the disjunctive form o, which calls attention to one element of the phrase
in contrast to the other. In example (122), balun ‘balloon’ is used to call attention to the size of
the man’s stomach. In example (123), the element of contrast is woksop ‘workshop’ and in
example (124), the form kemis ‘chemist’ serves the same purpose.

122. balun o man (balloon or man) “fat” or “big stomach”
123. man o woksop (man or workshop) “man with dirty clothes”
124. meri o kemis (woman or chemist) “woman with lots of perfume, lipstick”

Phrases Using bilong

We have already shown how the possessive marker bilong is commonly used to conjoin elements
in idioms. Here are a few additional examples:

125. samting bilong maus ret (something of mouth red) “betel nut”
126. taul bilong rot (towel of the road) “prostitute”
127. meri bilong rot (woman of the road) “prostitute”
128. samting bilong graun (something of the ground) “temporary”
129. bilum bilong yu i gat hul (woven.bag of you it has a hole) “unfaithful spouse”
130. em isi we bilong en (it easy way of his) “someone who is uncoordinated”

Emphatic Particles

The particle ya and the aspectual i are also commonly employed in idiom and depict a story
exclamatory intonation:

131. yu nogut ya! (you no.good ya) “smart looking person” (as a semantic opposite)
132. kumul ya! (bird.of.paradise ya) “beautiful woman”
133. em bai hat ya! (he will be hard ya) “an undecided person”
134. mi nogut ya! (i no.good ya) “Am I not suitable?” (as an enticement)
135. yu kakaruk ya (you chicken ya) “You are afraid.” (English influence)
136. lus pinis (lost finish) “dead”
137. bensin/petrol pinis (fuel finished) “worn out or tired”

The use of kakaruk in (135) seems to be a back translation from the use of “chicken” in English
to indicate someone who is cowardly.

Miscellaneous Constructions

Many other creative idioms are found regularly in TP, which are often understood only
pragmatically. Note examples (142–143) for descriptions of a loser.

138. kam sindaun long sauspen (come sit by my saucepan) “invitation to eat”
139. tok tru i stap yet (talk true it waits yet) “unbelief” or “waiting for the truth”
140. i gat spes? (it has space) “asking for a relationship with opposite sex”; Also (140a) nogat
spes (don’t.have space) “full [of food]”
141. giamin tu i orait (lying too is fine) “comment that someone is deceptive”
142. soldia nating (soldier nothing) “a nobody” or “of no rank or position”; Also (142a) kanaka
nating (unsophisticated nothing) “unsophisticated person”
143. nogat kago (doesn’t.have cargo) “poor person”; Also (143a) tarangau man or (143b) sori
144. darling poro (darling special.friend) “sweetheart”
145. pulim taitim (pull tight) “to argue”
146. painim sikis-o (to.find six nothings), referring to the game of Snooker where the ball does
not go in any of the six pockets.