Critical Podium Dewanand India
Words That Originated in India by Vara Anantharaman
Sacrificer Vara Anantharaman
Sacrifice code wfor0266
Sacrifice date Sunday, July 8, 2001
Words That Originated in India by Vara Anantharaman
Published on Sunday, July 8, 2001
A few years ago, I happened to go to Greenwich Village in New York
to watch a show being put up by some friends of mine. In one of the
acts, they talked about the origin of the word 'Orange' (the fruit).
They had a map of the world on the wall. As they traced its origins,
they kept sticking little oranges on the places they mentioned. We
were surprised to see that the route ended in India. The word,
apparently, started as narangah in Sanskrit, moving to Persia as
narang and Arabia as naranj. From here, it moved to Italy as
melarancio, and in France, it became Orenge. From here, the Middle
English borrowed it and made it as it is today -- orange.
This really piqued my curiosity. Over the ages, India's rich
heritage has attracted a number of people from all over the world.
How many of them went back, taking with them, not only precious
stones and spices from here, but also some of our words? Consider
English, the most spoken language in the world. English has traveled
all over the world, changing its form to accommodate all the
cultures it touches.
How much has India influenced this almost universal language? I had
known of 'bungalow', 'catamaran', 'Juggernaut' and a few others.
Curious to find out if there were other commonplace words with
similar roots, I was pleasantly surprised to find a treasure trove!
Most of these words were borrowed because there were no equivalents
in other languages. So they adopted the native words. When
pronunciations differed, they modified the words slightly to suit
their tongue. This process evolved such that, if you heard some of
these words now, you would never guess that they originated in your
The British in India borrowed words like pajama, khaki, wallah,
cummerbund, curry, pundit, fakir, and jodhpurs without modifying
them. But prior to the British, other cultures have been borrowing
from our languages, which have ultimately found their way into
I started with my native tongue, Tamil. Some were quite obvious and
others not so obvious. 'Mulligatawny' soup although made with
chicken, descended from the rasam of South India. The word itself is
from the Tamil word milagutanni; milagu (pepper) + tanneer (cool
water). Tan (cool) + neer (water). 'Catamaran' originated from
kattumaram, the word that describes a bundle of wood. 'Cash' comes
from Portuguese caixa, which in turn originated from Tamil kacu,
meaning a small coin.
'Cheroot' traveled through France -- cheroute, originating in Tamil
curruttu, meaning spiral. The metal 'corundum' comes from its Tamil
equivalent kuruntam. 'Areca', a type of palm was brought to the
English language by the Portuguese, from Malayalam arekka, areca nut
and from Tamil araikka. 'Culvert', is probably from Tamil cul-vettu
and 'curry', obviously from Tamil kari.
'Ginger' has traveled a long route. It comes from Middle English
gingivere, from Old English gingifer, and from Old French gingivre,
both from Medieval Latin gingiber, from Latin zingiberi, from Greek
zingiberis, of Middle Indic origin, akin to Pali singiveram, from
Dravidian, akin to Tamil iñci (ginger, of southeast Asian origin
Tamil ver, root). 'Mango' traveled the Portuguese route (manga) from
Malay manga, from Tamil maankaay (maan, mango tree + kaay, fruit).
The fruit known to Tamilians as bumbilimos is 'Pampelmous' in
English, borrowed from Dutch pompelmoes, from the Tamil name for the
Pagoda, which is mostly an Oriental term, has its origins in Tamil.
It has been borrowed from Portuguese pagode, perhaps from Tamil
pagavadi and from Sanskrit bhagavati (goddess, from feminine of
bhagavat-, blessed, from bhaga meaning good fortune).
There are quite a few words that have been borrowed from Sanskrit.
Most of the western world recognizes karma, mantra or pundit. If you
were an ace in your technical field, they would call you a tech
guru. But these are examples of the direct usage of Sanskrit words.
Some words have been modified to suit the western tongue and
spelling, but the root is definitely Indian.
'Bungalow' as we all know is from Bangla in Hindi and also means
Bengali, since this type of house was more common in that
state. 'Jute' is another word borrowed from this state, jhuto and
from Sanskrit jutah, meaning twisted hair.
'Juggernaut' is of course from Jagannath. During the ratha yatras,
many people were crushed under the heavy wheels, some of them
falling voluntarily and some pushed by the massive crowds. The
English form juggernaut began to be used in the nineteenth century
in the sense of a massive inexorable force or object that crushes
everything in its path.
The Aryan civilization credits its name to the Sanskrit word Arya
meaning noble. 'Bund' as in embankment or 'dike' is from the Hindi
word band meaning 'to close'. 'Camphor' traces its way through
Middle English caumfre, from Anglo-Norman, from Medieval Latin
camphora, from Arabic kafur, possibly from Malay kapur, akin to
Sanskrit karpuram. 'Cashew' probably came from Portuguese acajú,
from Tupi, from cajú, yellow fruit, acidic, similar to our own
kaju. 'Aniline' is a blue colored dye obtained from coal tar. It was
called Neel or Neelam in Sanskrit. The Arabs named it AI Nil or An
Nil from which came aniline.
'Chintz' is derived from the Sanskrit word Chitra, which means
picture or variegated. 'Chit', as in note, comes from Hindi chitthi
(note, letter) from Sanskrit citrit (note). The word 'cot' was born
from Hindi khat, from Sanskrit khatv, from Tamil kattu (to bind,
'Cowry', seashell of a small gastropod (invertebral water creature),
used as currency in some parts of South Pacific and Africa, comes
from Karapada or Karapadika in Sanskrit, which was pronounced as
Kaudi or Kauri in the then spoken language, Prakrit and later in
A small boat is some times called a 'dinghy', which is from its
Hindi equivalent, Dingi or Dengi. 'Gymkhana' which was used a lot
during the British rule, comes from Hindi gend-khana (racket court
where gendmeans ball and khana means house). A sack may be
called 'gunny', which originated from the Sanskrit word Goni or
Gonika. Dutch lac, or French laque, both from Old French lace comes
from Medieval Latin lacca, from Arabic lakk, from Prakrit lakkha,
from Sanskrit laksha (meaning red dye, resin).
Could you have guessed that the word 'lemon' found its origin in
India? It comes from the Sanskrit Nimbuka, in Modern Hindi as Nimbu
or Limbu. Middle English limon, from Old French, from Old Italian
limone, from Arabic laymun, from Persian limun. And how many of you
knew that the word 'shampoo', a common everyday word in English,
came from Hindi Champna (to press)? A rich, influential person is
often called a 'nabob', a mutation of nawab of India. And the 'thug'
came from Hindi thag, perhaps from Sanskrit sthagah (a cheat), from
sthagati, sthagayati (he conceals).
A lot of Malayalam words were borrowed by the Portuguese to be later
lent to the English language. The word 'Bamboo' originated from the
Malayalam word Mambu and Sanskrit root word Vambha. 'Cachou', a
pastille used to sweeten the breath comes from French, from
Portuguese cachu, from Malayalam kaccu, from Tamil kayccu. 'Coir'
comes from Malayalam Kayaru (to be twisted) and Kayar
(rope). 'Jaggery' comes from Portuguese dialectal jágara, probably
from Malayalam sarkkara, from Sanskrit sarkara (sugar).
When you call someone a 'pal', did you know you are talking in
Sanskrit? Well, not exactly, but almost. The word has its roots in
Romany phral, phal, from Sanskrit bhrata, bhratr (brother). And if
someone called you a 'pariah', they are borrowing from the Tamil
word, paraiyan, which is a caste in Tamil Nadu.
Pepper, another common everyday word, wound its way through Middle
English peper, from Old English pipor, from Latin piper, from Greek
peperi, of Sanskrit pippali.
While you drink a glass of 'punch', you may want to remember that
the word is from Hindi panch, from its originally having been
prepared from five ingredients. Talking about food, 'rice' too had
its origins in India. It traced its way through Middle English, from
Old French ris, from Old Italian riso, from Latin oryza, from Greek
oruza, of Indo-Iranian origin, Sanskrit Vrihi. 'Sugar' has also come
from India. It started from the Sanskrit sarkara, to Persian shakar,
to Arabic sukkar, to Old Italian zucchero, Old Latin succarum, Old
French sukere, Middle English Sugre to finally become today's sugar.
It is hard to believe that a word as Asian as 'Zen' is ultimately an
Indo-European word. 'Zen', which has been in English since 1727, is
the Japanese pronunciation of Chinese chán (quietude). Chán
from Pali jhaanam, from Sanskrit dhyaanam (meditation), from the
Sanskrit root dhyo-, dhy- (to see, observe). The Indo-European root
behind the Sanskrit is dheia-, dhya- (to see, look at). This root
also shows up in Greek, where dhya- developed into se-, as in Common
Greek sema (sign, distinguishing mark). This became sema in Attic
Greek, the source of English 'semantic'.
All these seem to be proof of the influence that India had over the
rest of the world in days gone by. The fact that there are so many
Indian words in English makes us conclude that this influence was
extremely high indeed. And it has not stopped, but seems to be an
ongoing process. A lot of the western world is familiar with Naan,
Tandoor, Chai and Lassi. Bindi is popular and so is Bhangra. I am
sure many others will follow.
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