Joburg Expat: “Just Now” or “Now Now”?

February 12, 2011

“Just Now” or “Now Now”?

The South African Concept of Time

South Africans have a fairly complicated relationship with the word “now.” This is an across-the board phenomenon and has nothing to do with race or ethnicity. There are three distinct forms of “now” and as an expat you better learn the various meanings, or you will be very frustrated when things don’t happen. The following should give you some idea:

Now: Eventually, Maybe.
What could be simpler than interpreting “now” as meaning “at this very moment,” like “immediately? But don’t be fooled! “Now” spoken by a South African is more like the exact opposite of the word as we know it. If you’re told “now,” what the other person really means is “maybe later, but definitely not now.” As in “I’m leaving now to fetch your license plate,” meaning anytime between several hours from now until maybe next week, or, quite frankly, never. Especially if this was the first request of whatever it is you’re asking for, an answer containing “now” should not be what prompts you to check it off your to-do list!

Just now: Later.
“Just now” is a bit higher on the priority list than “now.” It’s a distinct improvement but still nowhere near “this instant.” If you’re told “I’ll check into your claim and call you back just now,” you might actually expect that to happen the same day, but clearly not immediately.

Now now: Shortly.
If you thought you’d finally find out how to make something happen immediately in South Africa, you’re mistaken. I hate to disappoint you, but even the third and last iteration of “now” will fall short of your expectation. “I’ll do it now now” means “I will get to it as soon as I can.” That’s the best you’re going to get.

But don’t be frustrated with any of this. The weather is great here! Someone else is doing your ironing! 

The best way to enjoy South Africa is to adapt and learn. Understand which “now” is meant and move on. Soon enough, you’ll be  throwing out “now's” and “just now's” of your own, and happily continue what you were doing without a second thought.


You might also like: 

My 43 Favorite South Africanisms
Click here to browse funny blog posts about South Africa.


Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane said...

I'm going to remember that now now! I love the different idioms and sayings used in English in different countries. I lived in Kenya and Ghana and had language fun there! I remember in Kenya the "I don't mind" phrase. If you ask someone if she'd like something -- tea, coffee, whatever -- you may get the answer "I don't mind," which might make you think the person doesn't care one way or the other, and you'd be a bit miffed. But in actual fact it means, "yes, please."

In Ghana you may hear "He abused me!" or "Don't abuse me!" which doesn't mean what you'd think it means in American English. It has the meaning of insult or ill-treat.

Sine said...

Ha, that is funny! I have a friend who lived in Kenya, I'm sure she had the same experience.

By the way, just to be fair, my South African friend G pointed out that the American equivalent of "just now" is "momentarily." As in "A customer service representative will be with you momentarily."

Mireille said...

I realized that when I was living in the USA the word 'SURE' doesn't exactly mean the same as I always thought. Funny, how words can have their own life in different countries, the subtle differences is what you have to learn.

Christina Auret said...

Very late comment,but, now now and just now are direct usage translations of Afrikaans phrases. The Kenyan usages are probably also direct (word for word) translations of local language phrases.

Die Skipaan said...

"Just now" can also mean very very recently.

As in:
"Did you send that quote to that ou?"
"Yes, I did it just now."

Sine said...

Yes, that's what makes South African English so endearing, because there are several expressions like that where it was translated from some other language word for word. Plus, Afrikaans is just so descriptive already, it often makes you laugh.

And yes, the "very recently" translation of just now is the way most English-speaking people would use it. Which is why it's so disconcerting - if it can mean "very very recently" then why wouldn't it be used the same way going in to the future, i.e. very very soon? But it is not very soon at all, quite the opposite, which is why the term now now has to be used to best it...

Pretoria CLO said...

I would love to use this article about "now" for the Pretoria newsletter for diplomats! Do you mind if I put this in the embassy's newsletter with your link?

Sine said...

Hi, sorry for the late reply. Yes, you are welcome to use this if it's not too late, as long as your make sure you have as your link. if you can also give me an email address (if you don't want to list it here, contact me via the contact page above), I'd like to send you a brief bio and author image. Thanks!

grendelle said...

In Namibia, we definitely heard "now now now" and even, when people wanted to drive home the point, the very occasional "now now now now." :-)

Sine said...

Grendelle, that is hilarious! It's like "now" inflation. Maybe they should have what Germany did after WWII in restoring its currency and introduce a new, strong, NOW and exchange it for 10 other nows:-)

Unknown said...

No no, this is actually very subjective and relative. For me now means immediately. Just now means in a bit and now now means later.

W. A. Jeffrey said...

I wonder if you can get an American now response if you offer to pay a hefty tip.

Sine said...

Ah, how often have I wished I could pay a tip to Eskom over the phone to perhaps have that outcome. Then again, that would be more like a bribe than a tip. I think overall it's just SA's nature to be vague in respect to the time. It's a lovely sentiment, really, once one gets used to it.

But there are places where you get great service. Restaurants being one of them. Across the board, I've always had outstanding servers in South Africa.

Phil said...

I love this! I've struggled with the same thing- so much so that I've introduced the guys I work with here to a new phrase: "Canadian now." If they are going to do something in the future, they now say now, just now, or now now. If they're going to do something right away-or need something right away- it's Canadian now. It's definitely helped to manage expectations!

Sine said...

LOL, I love it. I needed Canadian Now many times. Also German now or American now. I'll have to remember that. As opposed to in the future, lol!