The Manglish Dictionary – “Can”

Ah. “Can”. That abysmal, confounded word employed by the Malaysian to escape whatever uncomfortable situation he finds himself in. That shaky, substanceless promise that leaves only insecurity and uncertainty! The brisk, the dandy, the elegant “Can”. What is it? And how can so concise a word assume such prisms of shaded meaning? There is no deliberate science or great method behind the movement of such a thing. This thing can only be the manifestation of the faceless, shapeless power of the layman. And it is the fruit of this spontaneous energy we sample. This day, we explore the proud, grammatically erroneous “Can”.

SOLS 24/7, Manglish, Can, Malaysia

As with most words in the voluminous Manglish lexicon, “Can” is sometimes a question, and sometimes the answer to questions. Other times, it can even be the question and the answer simultaneously. The word is frequently used as an affirmative. To illustrate its usage:

“Can you help me take the trash out?”


Although grammatically flawed in English, in Bahasa Malaysia, it is not wrong to use “Boleh” (the equivalent of the word “Can”), as an affirmative. This, we can quite safely presume, is likely the root of the usage of “Can”: a straightforward, no-nonsense translation of the most direct sort. This represents the influence of Bahasa Malaysia in the usage of the term.

Similarly, while speed, volume and inflection play a part in conveying meaning, “Can” is best delivered when paired with one of the many assorted exclamations that subtly (or substantially) alter the meaning and experience of the term. Kindly refer to the photo furnished above for an illustration of this. The exclamations represent sentence endings used most often in Malaysian Chinese communities to communicate subtle qualities of emotive nature. The same applies here, with the exclamations largely dictating the conveyed meaning of “Can”. This represents the influence of the Chinese language on the usage of the term.

SOLS 24/7, Manglish, SOLS 24/7
The laws of ‘Can’, can be confusing

It must also be added, that everything must have its antithesis, and in the case of “Can”, it is: “Cannot”. A term employed as frequently in the reverse.

And so, with this queer amalgamation of Chinese, Malay and English elements, Malaysians “Can” and “Cannot” their way through the day. Strangely, when talking of this word, one is reminded of the shaky reliability and inherent uncertainties when dealing with the furtive Malaysian. With the supposed reassurance of “Can, can, can”, the car mechanic that promised to take an hour with your vehicle takes the whole afternoon. The Malaysian that promised to be on time with the pealing of “Can, can, can” arrives 30 minutes late. The employee that promised with “Can, can, can” to have the files on your desk in the morning delivers it only the following day. But do not despair, for such is the hip, zap, zing, go-to attitude of “Can”.

Now that you are instructed in the ways of “Can”, be sure to employ it frequently when in conversation with Malaysians. You will find it oddly reassuring, even heartening, when you “Can” at others. And soon, you might even find good reason to sprinkle a little procrastination into your labours, to apply a healthy dose of Malaysian simplicity to life.

Everyone, Can lah!
Everyone, Can lah!

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