Bageiro! And Why Your Parents Said It

By Maryann Tan

Those of us with parents born just about the end of the Second World War may have heard them utter “bageiro”, once a common swear word in Malaysia.

How and when was it used? In exclamation to express, anger, exasperation, contempt, impatience … And of course to insult.

Stubbed your toe?
“Bageiro!”

Driver in front of you lane-hogging?
“Move it, bageiro!”

Colleague at work making your life miserable?
“That guy is a real bageiro lah!”

Phonologically, bageiro sounds close to “bugger-row”, at least in Malaysian-accented English. So as a child I always thought it was a derivative of “bugger”–itself a derogatory word of whose meaning I was then equally ignorant.

Imagine my surprise then, to find out that the true origins of bageiro are Japanese; a lexical borrowing from the time of the Japanese occupation between 1942 and 1945.

A little bit of history

The Japanese occupation was a harrowing time for people in Malaya. In The Japanese Occupation of Malaya: A Social and Economic History, Paul Kratoska explains that Japan had a mission to engender a sort of “Asian Nationalism” to gain support for the war and to replace “materialism and individualism of the West” with an Asian spiritualism, discipline, obedience and cooperation. The preferred values was the Japanese spirit encapsulated in a construct known as Nippon seishin.

Japanese officers surrender their swords in Kuala Lumpur

Japanese officers surrender their swords in Kuala Lumpur

Thus, began a propaganda which would spread primarily through schooling, newspapers and radio. Its aim was to get people to learn Japanese, imbibe the spirit of Nippon seishin and to ditch western ideas and habits.

The Japanese style of government didn’t go down too well with local folks. Malays and Indians alike found Japanese difficult to learn, while the Chinese deemed it “slavery education”. And there was simply a lack of resources in teachers and adequately translated materials to teach Japanese to the locals.

In the end, most adults found it impossible to be proficient in Japanese, despite the regime’s efforts. According to Kratoska, only a few basic phrases were learned. This included the popular, all-purpose harsh word “bakayaro”, literally “bastard”, learned no less from Japanese officers of the time.

In an interesting footnote from the book, Kratoska cites A Samad Ismail in his article, Peristiwa Sejarah Patut Diingati dan Dipelajari Oleh Generasi Sekarang: “… if one made excuses to the Japanese their response was likely to be bageiro.”

A more poignant scene is described in N. I. Low’s When Singapore was Syonan-to: “At the surrender ceremony after the war the Japanese were met by thousands screaming ‘bakaro’ at them.”

A dying word?

I’m neither a lexicographer nor an expert in the historical linguistics of Malaysian languages. But I get a sense that as stories of the struggle with Japanese occupation fade from living memories, so too will the use of this once provocative and emotive word.

Still, the young internet generation might keep it on life-support for very different reasons. The Japanese words bakaro, bageiro, or baka-yarou are alive and kicking: in the weird and wonderful domain of Anime-inspired merchandise.

Maryann is a freelance journalist, now pursuing an MA in Linguistics at Bangor University, Wales. From time to time she applies her new-found linguistic knowledge to explaining the idiosyncrasies of Malaysian English.

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