Avatar No 1 on the Net: Indian words in English

Viagra sounds like the Sanskrit word for tiger — “vyaghra”.

Henry Hitchens points that out in his delightful book, The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes the similarity but doubts any connection between the two words. The “vi” of Viagra possibly comes from virile and virility, it says.

That may be so, but there are plenty of Indian words in English. Think of the Oscar nominee, Avatar.

That’s another Sanskrit word, which means incarnation. It was first used in English by the Orientalist Sir William Jones in 1784.

But how did avatar come to mean a computer graphics icon? OED offers no explanation for this new incarnation of avatar. It simply notes the word has been used in this sense since 1986.

Indian words may not be a dime a dozen in the English language, but they are certainly among the most common.

Think of curry, cot, bungalow, bangle, pyjamas. They are all from India. Cot comes from the Hindi “khat”, bangle from the Hindi “bangri”, pyjamas from the Urdu “pyjama”, bungalow from the Hindustani “bangla”. Curry is from the Tamil “kari”, which means sauce or relish for rice, says the OED.

Now let’s do a Google search to see which appears most often on the internet.

And the winner is …


And the runner-up:

Bollywood followed by karma and jungle.

Yes, Bollywood is in OED, too.

All the other words appeared in English in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Unlike the rest, “bazar” appeared in English even before the English set up trading stations in India.

The OED shows it was first used by Richard Hakluyt in 1599, but he wrote “Bazarro”, not “bazaar”.  The OED explains:

It has been adopted in Hindustani and Turkish, and seems to have come into English use first from the latter, through Italian.

So “Bazarro”.

Jungle is another common word from India. So is mogul — and thug. The dinghy and the catamaran are two boats with Indian names. And smokers will be familiar with the cheroot.

Jungle comes from the Hindi “jangal”, “thug” from the Hindi “thag”. Mogul is a variant on Mughal, the dynasty that ruled India before the British.

Dinghy comes from the Hindi “dingi”.

Catamaran is from the Tamil “katta-maram”, which means “tied tree or wood”, according to the OED.

Cheroot is from another Tamil word,  shuruttu, which means a roll (of tobacco), it says.

Tom-tom is a drum that makes one think of Africa. But the word comes from the Hindi “tam-tam”, says the OED.

Another Indian word is pariah. It means an outcast. But it is a corruption of a Tamil word, Pariyar, which was the name of a community of drummers. High-caste Hindus could not touch the drums since they were made of leather, explains Henry Hitchens in his book, The Secret Life of Words. So the drums were played by the lower-caste Pariyar, mainly from Kerala and Tamil Nadu, who also worked for Europeans as servants. Hence they were regarded by other Hindus as unclean. That’s how Pariyar become pariah in English.

The English also picked up the Indian word for a mentor — guru — and for a scholar: pundit.

And let’s not forget raja, maharaja, yoga, karma, nirvana — all Indian, all frequently used in English. The influx continues. Hitchens writes:

In Britain, we can expect more gains from Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi. We are seeing them already: the plaudit shabash, the revival of badmash which seems increasingly to mean not so much a hooligan as a mischief-maker, achcha (“all right”), and nang, another term of approval, which probably originated in Bengali, along with borrowings from South Asian English, like the verb to prepone (modelled on postpone).

The Punjabi folk dance bhangra has also found its way into the Oxford English Dictionary.

Some words have been anglicized, changed beyond recognition, like pariah, cot, bangle and kedgeree — which comes from the Hindi “khichri”.

Some have acquired new meanings like dungaree. It comes from the Hindi “dungri” — a coarse, inferior kind of Indian calico, according to the OED.

But the mother of all mutated Indian words must be Hobson-Jobson. It doesn’t sound Indian at all.

Hobson-Jobson is now remembered as the title of a glossary of Anglo-Indian words — words used by the English in India. The book was written by Henry Yule and Arthur C Burnell in the late 19th century. Hitchens explains why they chose that title:

Hobson-Jobson takes its name from what they describe as “an Anglo-Saxon version of the wailings of Mahommedans as they beat their breasts in the procession of the Moharram”. What the British heard was “Ya Hasan! Ya Husayn!”… When Yule and Burnell were writing, the phrase was in frequent use by British soldiers in the Punjab to refer to “a native festal excitement”: now it is remembered only as the title of this strange, discursive dictionary.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

You may also like

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: