Puwera Usog, Tao Po, and Tabi Po: The Curious History of Three Filipino Phrases
ILLUSTRATOR ROLAND MAE TANGLAO
Puwera usog, tabi tabi po, and tao po are common phrases in the Philippines, each tied to a history of supernatural beliefs. The phrases are hundreds of years old, with "tao po" predating the Spanish colonization of the Philippines.
For centuries, Filipinos have used the phrase “tao po!” whenever they come visiting another person’s bahay kubo in precolonial times. Apparently, its original purpose was to declare you’re human and not an aswang.
Roots of the Phrase 'Tao Po'
According to historian Ambeth Ocampo, pre-colonial Filipinos used the phrase to declare themselves as humans, thus: “Tao po ako, hindi aswang!” (“I am human and not aswang”)
Over time, the frequency of usage shortened the phrase from “tao po ako” to the present construct of “tao po.” Ocampo says precolonial Filipinos believed engkantos, evil spirits, aswang, and other dangers that lurked outside the home were incapable of saying “tao po” to trick you into letting them in your house.
Today, “tao po” has a more mundane purpose. Depending on the usage, it can be loosely translated to “anybody home?” or “a person is at the gate.”
Although the superstitious roots of the phrase have faded away and been replaced with a more practical meaning, there are still some very old Filipino phrases that still bear superstitious meaning. Among these are “tabi, tabi po” and “puwera usog.”
The Meaning of "Tabi, Tabi Po"
“Tabi, tabi po” (literally “step aside, sir”) is rooted in the belief that elementals or unseen spirits of the earth dwell in the ground. Announcing your presence and telling them to step aside is a precautionary measure so that you will not accidentally step on them, hurt them, or grievously offend them by accidentally peeing on them.
Elders believe that accidentally offending these supernaturals by stepping or peeing on them will result in the painful enlargement of your offending body part.
Puwera Usog in English
The phrase “puwera usog,” “pwera usog,” or “pera usog” comes from the Spanish and Filipino words fuera and usog. It literally means "layas, usog!" or “go away, curse!” It seeks to banish or repel a hex brought about by a person who greets another person. Infants and children are believed to be particularly vulnerable to usog.
In Filipino folklore, usog is an ailment caused by a person greeting someone, especially an infant. According to folklore, this ailment could be anything from a stomachache to a raging fever, and infants and children are especially vulnerable to it.
A simple greeting or praise like "oh, your baby is so cute!” is said to be enough to activate the hex or usog. Saying “puwera usog” allegedly counters this hex.