‘Jahat’, ‘Buruk’ or ‘Jelek’

In the earlier post I have explained the difference between ‘Baik’ and ‘Bagus’ which both mean good.

Now I am going to explain the words that Indonesian use to say bad.

Yes, there are at least three words that we can use to say bad in Indonesian. But how do we use them correctly? Let’s go through these three words one by one.

‘Jahat’ is often used to describe a person, a group of people or an organisation.

It also translates to evil and any other sinister words. When this adjective is used, it usually means that the person/group/organisation have evil characteristics (i.e. by oppressing the poor, murdering, stealing, etc).

Example 1:

Orang jahat means bad person.

Example 2:

Budi orang yang jahat.

Budi is a bad person.

When an Indonesian says this, he/she implies that Budi has evil characteristics. He might be rude, harsh, oppressive or in the worst possible scenario, a murderer.

Example 3 (when used in a less serious way):

Jangan jahat kepada dia.

Don’t be mean to him.

This phrase is often used when someone is trying to stop their friend from teasing someone else or when they’re trying to prevent someone from being mean to others.

‘Buruk’ is often used when someone’s talking about situations and relationships.

Example 1:

Kabar buruk means bad news.

The word ‘buruk’ is often used together with ‘kabar’ because ‘kabar’ means news and it involves situations.

Example 2:

Ada kabar buruk!

There’s a bad news!

Example 3:

Bagaimana hubungan kamu dengan Sinta?

How’s your relationship with Sinta?

Buruk. Saya ada banyak masalah dengan dia.

Bad. I have a lot of problems with her.

Cultural Note

Indonesian people tend to be modest and indirect in their communication. The adjective ‘buruk’ and ‘jahat’, on another hand, tend to convey a very negative feeling that might shock the listener for being too direct. Therefore an Indonesian might prefer to use ‘kurang baik’ instead of ‘buruk’ or ‘jahat’ and ‘kurang bagus’ instead of ‘jelek’ to make it sound better than it’s supposed to be.

So now you already know two words that we can use to say bad in Indonesian. But they’re limited to people or situation or feelings. How if you read a book and it’s bad. Just bad. Surely you can’t use buruk or jahat? This is where ‘jelek’ becomes important.

‘Jelek’ means ugly. But it also has the essence of bad (mostly exterior).

This word is often used when you talk about inanimate or intangible objects and when ‘buruk’ or ‘jahat’ doesn’t fit the context. Note that if you’re trying to say that a book is bad (not necessarily ugly) you can’t combine this adjective straight away with the noun because it will most likely mean ugly instead of bad (Illustration: Rumah jelek means ugly house – not just bad). 

What you will do instead is explain the noun further using ‘yang’ or other sentence structure.

Example 1:

Rumah ini jelek sekali.

This house is really bad.

In this sentence, the speaker is suggesting that the house is bad (based on his observation) and it could be in terms of the design, materials or any other factors.

Example 2:

Ini film yang sangat jelek.

This is a really bad movie.

In this sentence, the speaker is suggesting that the movie is bad (based on his experience) and it could be in terms of the storyline, ending or the way it was set up.

You might later feel confused on whether the word ‘jelek’ means ugly or just bad when it is used. The best way to deal with this is to double check with the speaker. However, it is also safe to assume from the beginning that when ‘jelek’ is used, it’s always related to something that you can observe (i.e. house, someone’s face) or experience (i.e. book, movie) which lead into you judging the thing being bad.

Final Note

I hope that this post will help you in understanding these 3 similar yet different words that Indonesians use to say bad. Bear in mind though, that there might be circumstances where both ‘buruk’ and ‘jelek’ can be used to explain a particular noun but there are not many of them.


Nilai buruk means bad mark but you can also say nilai jelek.

Have a question regarding this topic? Post your question below!

Difference between ‘Jahat’, ‘Buruk’ and ‘Jelek’

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