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Thursday March 6, 2008

Origins of the borrowed words

BORROWED or loaned or stolen words ?? Does is it really matter?

In my last article on this subject (Feb 22), I put forward a very easy challenge: “Can you find the words (in this list) that were borrowed from other languages?” I am confident that many readers were able to find or already know the etymology or history of some of the words in the list. Not all of the words were borrowed but each and every one of them has a history or what I like to call a “beginning”.

So, here are the answers, as I know them.

Typhoon: A violent tropical storm. The Arabs say that the word is an adaptation of their Arabic word tufan. The Greeks say, “No way! It’s ours. We say typhon which means violent storm.” Another suggestion is that the word was from the Cantonese tai fung, meaning great wind.

Loot: Things stolen during pillaging ... Ermm ? pillaging? You mean looting or stealing? Yes. And its origin was in India, in the Hindi language to be exact.

Ginger: When I researched the etymology of this word, my first concerns were: “How am I going to simplify the explanation of its beginnings as it has been influenced by the many periods of the English language – Middle English gingerer, Old English and then Greek zingier?” Then I found that the one I liked was the Tamil inci, which means ginger, and veer, which means root.

Shampoo: This was a little bit of a surprise! This word is borrowed from the Anglo-Indian word shampoo! It originated in the Hindi word champ, which means to smear, massage using the flowers of a plant called the Michelin champak. I know I met someone in Kuala Lumpur called Champak who told me her name was the name of a flower! A small world of words?

Compound: Guess what? Compound originated in the 1600s from the Malay word kampong! I think this deserves an “ah ha!” as we think about the definition of the word as “a village or group of buildings”. The English borrowed the word to describe an enclosure for a factory or a settlement of Europeans in the East.

Bandanna: I thought this word was one that originated in Spain or Mexico only to find that it is from the Hindi word bandhnu and from the Sanskrit word badhnati, which means “to bind”. Perhaps I had visions of the handsome Spanish actor Antonio Banderas on a horse, wearing a red bandanna on his head and ?

Cumquat or Kumquat: I have eaten many a slice of toast covered in cumquat jam. I never thought to ask about its origins. It is a fruit grown in Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam and even Malaysia. But the origin of the word is from Canton in China – gam gwat, or gan ju in Mandarin. (I must find the Bahasa Malaysia name for it!)

Amok: This is a word I love! My mother used to threaten my brother and me with “No going away during your school vacation if you continue to run amuck while I am at work”. (Our nanny was the squealer!) It never occurred to me that this word was first recorded from the Malay amok, which means attacking furiously or a frenzied person. I have been enlightened.

Gong: From the Malay word gong. The sound of the instrument when struck?

Shanghai: This is an easy one and used mainly to describe a situation that a sailor might find himself in when he is kidnapped to work on a ship sailing to places like Shanghai in China.

Junk: A Chinese sailing ship but ... from the Malay word jong or Javanese djong, which I have been told means large boat or ship.

Kowtow: The Chinese had a custom of touching the ground with their forehead as a sign of submission or respect. In Hanyu Pinyin, it is spelt kou tou.

Pariah: I thought this word simply meant “mongrel dog”. Of course not! It has been borrowed directly from the derogatory Tamil word paraiyar because it was applied to people who were of a low caste and/or social outcasts! This word has been deleted from my vocabulary, effective immediately.

Bangle: A simple one. A ring shaped bracelet borrowed from the Hindi word bangri, which means coloured glass bracelet or anklet.

Mango: Hmmm, this was interesting and a bit of a battle between languages. Is it from the Malay word mangga or the Tamil word man, meaning mango tree, + kay, which means fruit?

Silk: From the Chinese word si, the Manchurian word sirghe, then borrowed into Greek as serikos, and on and on ...

Alcohol: An easy but interesting one. Ladies, have you ever used kohl to darken your eyelids? Al kuhul was the powder used to darken eyes. Then the definition moved to al gawl, meaning the spirit which is also the origin of the word ghoul.

Thug: “You useless member of a gang of murderers and robbers and cheats and swindlers!” said the person in Hindi before it was borrowed by the English.

Cockatoo: I thought this was an Australian word and bird! In fact, it has been borrowed from the Malay word kakak tua, meaning older sister. Ouch!

Orang-utan: Everyone knows this one.

Jungle: Borrowed from the Hindi word jangal, which means desert, forest, wasteland. Weird! I always imagined a jungle as being forest with lots of trees, humidity and rain, rain and more rain.

Punch: Here is one for those of you who like a little ‘punch’ at parties but are never quite sure what the ingredients are. This is a word said to be borrowed from the Hindi word panch, which means five. Five spirits, or four spirits and water, or three spirits, water and lemon juice, or ?

Cot: From the Hindi word khat or small bed.

Gung ho: This story must be told. The original Chinese word kung he means to co-operate. Then a colonel in the US Marine Corps, stationed in China in the 1930s, was so impressed with the attitude of the people in the cooperatives he visited, he chose “Gung Ho” as the motto for his battalion. It is said that by the end of World War II, these same words were being used throughout the American Marine Corps to express a “can do” attitude.

Anaconda: If you watched the movie of the same title, you probably thought it was South American. In actual fact, all I could find were suggestions that ranged from Sinhalese henacandaya or whip snake to Tamil anaikkonda, which is supposed to mean “having killed an elephant”. Er ? any connection to its size?

Yen: Yes, it’s the Japanese currency but wait ? if its definition is also “a sharp desire or hunger for something”, then it goes back to the Chinese Cantonese word yin, which means “intense craving”, supported in English by the word “yearn” or to long for something.

Is this it? Are there more words that are borrowed, loaned or stolen? Absolutely! I read somewhere that there were 80,000 loan words in the 1970s.

I enjoyed this simple investigative exercise simply because the English pronunciations of the words I was searching for often differed from the original pronunciation and so the people I spoke to about Chinese words, Malay words, etc, were not able to recognise the borrowed word when spoken.

Also, I am repeatedly reminded that when I start activities like this, “curiosity killed the cat”, but I think “indifferent cats” probably died young and of boredom.


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