The Squirrelbasket

English words from Indian roots


Surely everybody has heard of the James Cameron movie Avatar - but how many know the original meaning of the word?

Avatar? Juggernaut? Who’d have thought that words from ancient Indian religion would have such currency in the English language today?

I’ve already blogged about Latin words, Celtic words and Scandinavian words in the English language, but now it’s the turn of India.

The English Language by Professor Meiklejohn

I say “India” as when that old favourite book of mine, The English Language – Grammar, History, Literature by Professor Meiklejohn, was printed in 1905, the land was yet to be subdivided into India and Pakistan – that happened in 1947 when it was partitioned on the basis of religion.

I apologise that for simplicity’s sake I have left out the other countries making up the lands of the British Raj.

Surprisingly, bearing in mind the large number of words we have received from the days of the Raj in India, Meiklejohn lists fewer than 30 words, from Hindu (or Hindi as we would now call it) and lumps them together with sundry other foreign borrowings from around the world.

So I have added to his list with the help of a dictionary and Wikipedia. I’ve tried to keep it simple, but there are many languages in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the three nations which currently make up the former India.

The main languages today are Hindi (India), Urdu (Pakistan) and Bengali (Bangladesh). All developed originally from the ancient Sanskrit language and some words have come into English from Sanskrit – a few of them via more round-about routes than through those modern languages.

For example crimson comes from the Sanskrit krmi-ja, meaning “red dye produced by a worm”, via Arabic qirmiz and Old Spanish cremesin.

In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson was a favourite album during my teenage years...

But I am trying to keep it simple so most of my featured words came to English during those British Raj days (1848-1947). I am also leaving out those of Meiklejohn’s words which have fallen out of common use since his day and those relating purely to Indian things, such as rajah and rupee.

Meiklejohn had a simple, glorious (and imperialist) view of the English:
“The English have always been the greatest travellers in the world; and our sailors always the most daring, intelligent and enterprising. There is hardly a port or a country in the world into which an English ship has not penetrated; and our commerce has now been maintained for centuries with every people on the face of the globe.

“We exchange goods with almost every nation and tribe under the sun. When we import articles or produce from abroad, we in general import the native name along with the thing.”

So I will start with words for foods and other products, some information from Meiklejohn, some from Wikipedia or my Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary (1980):
Chutney – a condiment made of mangoes, chilli etc, or home-grown version made of apples, tomatoes, etc (from Hindi chatni, “to crush”)

Mulligatawny – a curry soup (from Tamil milagu-tannir, “pepper-water”)

Musk – a substance from the male musk deer, used in perfumery (from Sanskrit muska, “ testicle”, via Persian, Greek, Latin, French…)

Punch – drink originally made of spirit, water, sugar, lemon-juice and spice (from Hindi pac, Sanskrit panca, “five”, from the five ingredients)

At university my medic friends made punch from pure alcohol, but this one is made from Bacardi - click on the picture to see a recipe...

Toddy – fermented palm juice, mixture of spirits, sugar and hot water (from Hindi tari, from tar, “palm tree”)

Then there are fabrics and fashions:
Bandanna – coloured silk or cotton handkerchief, with spots of diamond prints (from Hindi badhnu, a mode of dyeing)

Bangle – a ring for arm or leg (Hindi bangri)

Colourful Indian bangles

Calico – a cotton cloth, often plain and bleached white or unbleached (first brought from Calicut) – I recall using this a lot in needlework class at school…

Chintz – a colourful printed cotton cloth, usually on a white background; chintzy means cheap and gaudy (Hindi chit, spotted cotton cloth)

Chintz by Sarah Eyestone...

Cummerbund – (Urdu kamarband, “waist binding”, originally from Persian)

Pyjamas or pajamas – originally loose trousers tied around the waist, now a sleeping-suit (Hindi pae “leg” jamah “clothing”)

Shampoo – originally to massage, now to wash and rub, as of hair or carpets; the liquid used for such shampooing. What did we do before we discovered shampoo? (Hindi capna, “to squeeze”)

We also took on board many religious, political and cultural concepts:
Avatar – descent of a Hindu deity in physical form, incarnation (Sanskrit ava, “away, down”, tar “to pass over”. Amazing how this now has a widespread meaning as a computer user’s representation of himself/herself or alter ego – and of course then there was the James Cameron film

Avatar: The Last Airbender was an anime cartoon series on Nickelodeon before the 2010 film of the same name and the very different James Cameron Avatar movie...

Chit or chitty – a short informal letter, an order or pass, a testimonial (Hindi citthi)

Coolie – a hired native labourer in India and China (probably from Koli, a tribe in western India, or from Tamil kuli, “hire”)

Cushy – easy and comfortable, not dangerous (Hindi khushi “happiness”)

Guru – a spiritual teacher or venerated person (Hindi and Sanskrit) – remember the Beatles’ guru, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi?

Gymkhana – a public place for athletic games, now mostly equestrian (Hindi gend-khana, “ball house” or racquet court – spelling changed to match gymnastics, which comes from Greek)

A colourful gymkhana painted by Eve Morris

Juggernaut – the “car of Juggernaut” represents any relentlessly destroying force, because Europeans thought devotees of Juggernaut or Jagannath (an incarnation of Vishnu) would throw themselves underneath his wheels (Sanskrit Jagannatha, “lord of the world”). I wonder which clever person first used it for the very big trucks/lorries on our roads…

An image of lord Jagannath, the original Juggernaut...

Karma – another word, like guru, popularised during the days when the Beatles became hippies in India. It means the good and bad results of one’s actions in life (Sanskrit karma, “an act”)

Loot – meaning to plunder, or money (Hindi lut)

Pariah – a member of a very low caste, a social outcast (Tamil paraiyar)

Pukka – I’m not a great fan of precocious TV chef Jamie Oliver, but he has done his best to improve the quality of children’s food, I’ll give him that. He is also a person who has popularised the word “pukka”, meaning good (Hindi pakka, meaning “cooked, ripe”)

TV chef Jamie Oliver - pukka is one of his favourite words...

Pundit – a learned person, an authority, now much used for political and sporting experts giving their views on TV and radio (Hindi pandit from Sanskrit pandita)

Thug – a ruffian or cut-throat, but originally a member of a religious fraternity who strangled people or poisoned them with datura, wiped out between 1826 and 1835 (Hindi thag, meaning “cheat”)

Yoga – Hindu philosophy aiming to free the soul through physical and mental discipline, although now much used as a system of exercise to maintain fitness and flexibility of the body (Sanskrit word meaning “union”)

Then there are words from nature:
Cheetah – described by Chambers as an Eastern animal like the leopard, used in hunting (Hindi cita, Sanskrit citraka, citrakaya, meaning “having a speckled body”)

A beautiful cheetah - its name means 'having a speckled body'

Cowrie – a group of marine gastropods in the family Cypraeidae, whose shells are used by some peoples as money or magical objects (Hindi kauri)

Cowrie shells by Nicolas Reynard for National Geographic...

Jungle – originally this meant waste ground but it has come to mean dense tropical rainforest (Sanskrit jangala, meaning “desert”)

Then there are architectural and domestic words:
Bungalow – a lightly-built house, properly with a veranda and one storey, now just a single-storey house (Hindi bangla, meaning “house in the style of Bengal”)

A bungalow in India - Aunt Annie's Bungalow by Mohan Khare...

Cot – a small bed or crib, or even a hammock (Hindi khat)

Veranda or verandah – a roofed gallery, terrace or open portico along the front or side of a building (Hindi varanda, which may have been taken from the Portuguese varanda, meaning “balcony”)

I think my favourite word, though, is doolally. My father was in the Army in India in the 1930s and picked up such Anglo-English terms, although he was Welsh, so I assumed it was a Welsh word.

He also used the full version doolally tap. It means crazy and comes from the British Army camp in Deolali, 100 miles north east of Bombay, where soldiers would await transport back home to Britain. Tap is an Urdu word for malarial fever (Sanskrit tapa, meaning “heat” or “torment”).

I have only just realised that the (now politically incorrect) BBC comedy series It Ain’t Half Hot Mum was set in Deolali.

Deolali (Doolally) was the setting for the BBC's comedy It Ain't Half Hot Mum...

The language is much richer for these wonderful “loan-words” (though I don’t know why they are called that, as we never give them back!).

Read more blog posts about words here