The Language of HIV/AIDS

Readers of Paula Treichler will recognize the allusion to her groundbreaking work, which examines the discursive construction of HIV/AIDS. I have taken the list below from IRIN/Plus News (via Jeremy’s blog, where I came across it).


  • Pisar pisar na min – Contracting HIV is like having “stepped on a landmine”
  • Bichinho – “Little bug” (the virus)

Kikuyu, spoken mainly in central Kenya

  • kagunyo – “The worm” (euphemism for HIV)

Hausa, spoken mainly in the north

  • Kabari Salama aalaiku – Literally translates as “Excuse me, grave” (reference to AIDS)
  • Tewo Zamani – Translates as the “sickness of this generation” (another reference to AIDS)

Igbo, spoken mainly in the east

  • Ato nai ise – “Five and three” (5 + 3 = 8, and “eight” sounds like “AIDS”)
  • Oria Obiri na aja ocha – “Sickness that ends in death” (euphemism for AIDS)

Yoruba, spoken mainly in the west

  • Eedi – “Curse”
  • Arun ti ogbogun – “Sickness without cure”

Pidgin, the unofficial lingua franca

  • He don carry – “He carries the virus”


  • HIV – He Intends Victory (acronym of HIV and a phrase popular among born-again Christians)

South Africa
IsiXhosa and IsiZulu

  • Udlala ilotto – “Playing the lotto” /ubambe ilotto – “won the lotto” (said of someone suspected of being HIV positive; Lotto is the national lottery)
  • Unyathele icable – Contracting HIV is like “stepping on a live wire”


  • House in Vereeniging – (Acronym of HIV; “bought a house in Vereeniging”, a town about 50km south of Johannesburg, refers to someone suspected of being HIV positive)
  • Driving a “Z3”/ “having three kids”/ the “three letters” – All refer to the three letters in the HIV acronym
  • Tracker – If you are suspected of being HIV positive people say God is tracking you, like the popular southern African service that tracks and recovers stolen vehicles


  • amesimamia msumari – “Standing on a nail”; euphemism for being skinny, or being small enough to fit on a nail’s head, referring to AIDS-related weight loss
  • kukanyaga miwaya – Contracting HIV is like “stepping on a live wire”
  • mdudu – “The bug” (refers to HIV)


  • Slim – Euphemism for HIV/AIDS as a result of the associated weight loss; less popular since the advent of ARVs

Luganda, spoken mainly in the central region

  • Okugwa mubatemu – You have been waylaid by thugs (contracted HIV)

Nyanja, spoken mainly in the east and the capital, Lusaka

  • Kanayaka – “It has lit up” (refers to a positive reaction from an HIV test)
  • Ka-onde-onde – “Thing that makes you thinner and thinner” (HIV)

Bemba, spoken mainly in the north and Lusaka

  • Bamalwele ya akashishi – “Those that suffer from the germ” (HIV-positive people)
  • Kaleza – “Razor blade” (Refers to a person being thin as a result of AIDS-related weight loss



  • Ari pachirongwa – “He/she is on a (treatment) programme”
  • Akarohwa nematsoti – “He/she has been beaten by thieves”
  • Mukondas – Abbreviation of “mukondombera” (epidemic)
  • Ari kumwa mangai – “He/she is drinking mangai” (mangai is boiled corn seedlings, which represent antiretroviral (ARV) drugs)
  • Akabatwa – “He/she was caught” (received a positive diagnosis)
  • Zvirwere zvemazuvano – “The current diseases” (the HIV epidemic)
  • Akatsika banana – “He/she has stepped on a banana and slipped” (someone who has tested positive and therefore will “fall” or die as a result)
  • Shuramatongo – “A bad omen for relatives”


  • Red card – Like a football player being sent off, life is over
  • Go slow – Taken to mean that he/she is now progressing slowly towards death
  • TB2 – Refers to high rates of HIV and TB co-infection (used to denote AIDS)
  • RVR – Slang for ARVs, adapted from Mitsubishi’s RVR sports utility vehicle
  • John the Baptist – When someone has TB, he/she is said to have been baptised by “John the Baptist”, who has come to announce the coming of HIV
  • FTT – “Failure to thrive” (adapted from the medical phrase, now used to describe HIV-positive children)
  • Boarding pass – Implies that HIV is a boarding pass to death
  • Departure lounge – An HIV-infected person is in the departure lounge awaiting death

2 thoughts on “The Language of HIV/AIDS

  1. I am reading Fatal Advice, by Cindy Patton who writes on how safe sex education went wrong by making HIV/AIDS in the U.S a ‘gay disease’. It is a telling account of this naming process, which your post reminded me of.

  2. What’s been interesting for me in the last 8 or so years is how HIV/AIDS has become, once again, a gay disease, even as its demographics change. There’s a generational issue, of course, which some of the African examples make clear. It’s striking, for instance, how visible HIV/AIDS is, wasting bodies and the like, images deemed obscene in the U.S., and thus absent from our public discourse.

    It’s somewhat of a terrible metaphor that the more we know about HIV/AIDS and its effects, the less we seem able to deal with it.

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