The other day. I was giving a talk on Hong Kong English to sixty S2 boys at a secondary school. At the start of the talk, I showed the S2 boys a few words which often appear as written ‘English’ in Hong Kong. My purpose was partly motivation, and partly to get an idea of their level of awareness of Hong Kong languages. The words were: jetso; long time no see; add oil; chok; and milk tea.
I was somewhat amused that one fourth of them thought the word ‘chok’ was English, while one half of them were not sure. The word ‘chok’ has always been a Cantonese word to me, though there is not a written form. Traditional usages include 「架巴士好chok」，「chok吓個奶樽」. But when the TV actor Lam Fung was first described as ‘chok’ about two years back, the word seemed to take on a new meaning. I asked some students at CUHK how the new meaning came about, and one of them said it originated from pinball games, which had the saying ‘chok 必殺技（打機)’. So it meant something like ‘to artificially produce a certain effect/result’. This was a plausible explanation given the fact that Lam Fung was accused of ‘looking, somewhat unnaturally in a certain artificial way, to appear more handsome’.
What’s interesting is that the usage was soon extended to other contexts, like ‘cok3 seng1’, which meant ‘to artificially speak or sing in a certain way’. Later still, it became an adjective with little meaning, as in ‘He/This is very chok’; somewhat like the English words ‘cool’ and ‘awesome’. People used it just because it was trendy.
When I first posted the question on FB, one FB acquaintance suggested that ‘chok’ originated from the English word ‘choke’. But to me, the English word ‘choke’ had barely the meaning of ‘chok’ as used in the above examples.
Some time later, however, the Cantonese expression ‘chok住道氣’ sprang to mind. This meaning came closest to the English word ‘choke’, in the sense of ‘being unable to breathe smoothly’.
So did ‘chok’ originate from an English word (such as ‘choke’)? I still don’t think so. But perhaps when it appears in written form in Hong Kong, it does so through English letters. So after a while, people who are not aware of the origin might think it’s English. (Incidentally, the HK Cantonese word ‘jetso’ was also considered to be English by quite a number of the students.)
My bantering about the word ‘chok’ with other FB friends caught the attention of Dr Angel Lin, who forwarded the issue to Dr David Li, an expert on HK languages. Dr Li kindly provided his observation, as follows:
It is definitely a Cantonese morpheme (unmistakable in speech) which does not have a suitable written representation in Cantonese (i.e. no Cantonese morpho-syllable appears to fit the pronunciation of cok3). Phonetic loan from existing Chinese morpho-syllables [pronounced in Cantonese to be sure] is a highly productive strategy; here it is blocked because there is no suitable match – hence a pseudo-English representation. In terms of pronunciation, however, it is not a problem given that most of our students receive English-rich education from kindergarten (based on words like ‘church’ and ‘shock’, where ‘c’ tends to be ignored without affecting its pronunciation).