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Issue 41

May 24, 1999
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Spotlight We spotlight an etymological curiosity and provide an in-depth examination of the word(s) and the etymological theories associated with it.
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

Indian words

A few weeks ago we featured English words derived from Native American languages. We were very careful to use the term Native American rather than Indian as we didn't wish to confuse the issue.  Indian means "from India".  Americans often use the term "East Indian" to denote something from India but then what phrase can one use to mean something from the "East Indies"?  Isn't it about time we stopped covering up Columbus's mistakes?  By the way, Columbus was so aggressively defensive about his claims that, on his third and last visit to the New World, he had a gibbet permanently fixed to the taff-rail of his flagship and threatened to hang any member of his crew who suggested that they might not, actually, be in India.

We are sure that our readers would recognize such words as curry, guru and jodhpurs as being Indian, but did you realize that verandah (Hindi varanda, Bengali baranda) and chutney (Hindi chatni) are Indian, too? 

You did?  Then how about shampoo, bungalow and pajamas?  A shampoo was originally a massage and comes from a Hindi word meaning "to press".  A bungalow is merely a Bengali house, that is, a house in the style of Bengal.  Pajamas (or in England pyjamas) came from Persian (paÿ "foot, leg" + jamah "clothing") via the Indian language Urdu.  Only in the West are pajamas sleepwear.  In India one wears them in the street.

Urdu is a creole which resulted from the Moghul invasions of India.  It is written in the Persian script and contains numerous Persian words.  In fact, the very name Urdu is Persian for "army".  Incidentally, when Urdu is written in the same alphabet as Hindi it is called Hindustani.

Jazz and rock drummers are likely to play floor-toms as part of their standard kit.  This term is a modern adaptation of the word tom-tom, the English form of the Hindi tam-tam.  Nowadays we reserve the word tam-tam for a huge drum (but sometimes it's a huge gong) used in classical and orchestral music.

Dungarees take their name from a coarse Indian calico (another Indian word) and sandals used to be made of sandalwood (Sanskrit chandan).  Did you think that tie-dying was invented by hippies in the 1960s?  Well, when the word bandanna was introduced into English in the 1750s it meant "a kind of tie-dyed cloth made in India" (from Hindustani bandhnu).

Surprisingly, jungle comes from jangala, a word which means "a dry, arid desert".  When we put our baby to bed in his cot we seldom realize that this word is really the Hindi khat.  Thus, while the English were colonizing India the Indians were colonizing the English language with Indian words.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From the Ramseys:

How did silhouette come to have its current meaning?

Well, for such a relatively recent word there are a remarkable number of theories.  As we all know, a silhouette is a portrait of (usually) a face, in profile, in which only the outline is rendered, which is then filled-in with black.  While it is certain that this genre of portraiture takes its name from Étienne de Silhouette (1709­67), a French politician, nobody seems to be able to agree why.silouettes.JPG (14106 bytes)

The most popular explanation is that the name came about as a joke.  It states that these economical portraits were dubbed silhouettes as a way of ridiculing the kind of petty economies which were instituted by Monsieur de Silhouette while he was Controller-general (very briefly, in 1759).

One of the characteristics of silhouettes is that they may be executed very speedily.  So, another suggestion agrees that the term is a joke about Étienne de Silhouette but differs in opining that the point of the joke was to lampoon Monsieur de Silhouette's very short tenure as Controller-general.

Wait, we're not finished yet.  There is still a third theory which would have us believe that M. de Silhouette himself was adept at this kind of portrait and used them to decorate the walls of his chateau at Bry-sur-Marne.  Oh well, you pays yer money an' you takes yer choice.



From Joe Francis:

Regarding the word squaw, I was led to believe that it was basically a word for reference to women's anatomical parts, and as such, derogatory. Merriam-Webster says it is derogatory, but doesn't give the full etymology.  Can you illuminate?ChippewaWoman.gif (12393 bytes)

Squaw comes from either the Narragansett word squaws "woman" or the Massachusetts squa, ussqua "woman" or "younger woman". All three of those forms come ultimately from Proto-Algonquian *ethkwe'waSquaw entered English in the early 16th century. 

We can't claim to speak for the Merriam-Webster editors, but we imagine that it is said to be disparaging because of the way that white English-speakers thought of Native Americans.  By calling someone a squaw, the speaker was implying that she was somehow  different from a "woman" or "wife".  It was this attitude of "we have wives; they have squaws" that gave this word its disparaging or offensive overtones.



From Dustin Oakley:

I have been trying to find the origin of the term copycat.

Cat has been used to refer contemptibly to people at least as far back as Shakespeare's time ("A pox upon him for me, he’s more and more a Cat", in All’s Well That Ends Well.   It was simply paired with copy to refer to someone who mimicked another's actions.  Copycat made its first known appearance in writing in 1896: "I ain’t heard of a copy-cat this great many years..’twas a favorite term o’ my grandmother’s" in S. O. Jewett's Country of Pointed Firs.



From Danna Botwick:

I am seeking the origin of the word whore.

This word, now considered coarse and abusive, has venerable roots in Old English and beyond, perhaps confirming that prostitution is at least one of the world's oldest professions.  It comes ultimately from the Indo-European root *qar-  (or *ka-) "to like, desire".  It is first found in late Old English as hóre, with cognates in Old High German huora, Old Norse hóra, Gothic hôrs "adulterer",  and Old Frisian hôr "adultery", to name a few.  The Indo-European root gave rise to another set of words which went in a different direction, such as Latin carus "dear" (source of English charity, caress, and cherish), Old Irish cara "friend" and caraim "to love", and Welsh cariad "dear".



From Helen:

First of all, I'd like to say that I really enjoy your web site.  I've been wondering why sailors are called tars.  I've also heard them called tarpaulins and I assume that is where tar comes from.

Yes, sailors were commonly known as tars or Jack-tars from the 17th century onward.  Several sources suggest that this is a shortened form of tarpaulinTarpaulin, thought to be so named because it is canvas impregnated with tar to make it waterproof, was a very common item onboard ships.

However, other etymologists believe the term arose because sailors in the 17th century would put tar on their trousers to make them waterproof.  This derivation does not arise via tarpaulin.

Finally, many sailors today say that the word arose because sailors put tar in their hair to keep it waterproof and out of their faces in the stiff winds at sea.  Whether anyone took this drastic step we cannot say.

If you were wondering, tar itself goes way back to Old English (the late 7th or early 8th century, at least) and is thought to be related to tree, among other words, coming from the Indo-European root *derw- "firm, solid, steadfast". The sense here is that trees are solid and that tar comes from (certain) trees.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

...our soapbox where we vent our spleen regarding abuses of the English language.

We Only Discuss Pet Peeves Here, We Don't Play Golf With Them

Ann Hogan writes:

One of my pet peeves is what I call the Lonely Only, a misplaced modifier, as in "She only eats vegetables," which means, I suppose, that she doesn't use them for sporting goods and other purposes.

Indeed!  Of course, it should be "She eats only vegetables" which means that she is a vegetarian or, perhaps even a vegan, notwithstanding her sporting-good preferences. 

To show how the meaning of a sentence is altered by the position of only, consider the following:

(a)  "Only Jane likes John on Fridays." 

This means that no one but Jane likes John on Fridays.

(b) "Jane only likes John on Fridays."

Jane likes (but does not love) John on Fridays.

(c)  "Jane likes only John on Fridays. " 

Jane likes no-one but John on Fridays . 

(d)  "Jane likes John on Fridays only."

Jane likes John on Fridays but not during the rest of the week.  

(e)  "Jane likes John only on Fridays."

This is ambiguous.  It could mean the same as (c) or (d).

Misplaced modifiers are very common.  In fact, we invite you, Our Readers, to submit other examples of adverbial (or adjectival) anarchy, culled from newspapers, magazines, etc.  Please provide the source of your submission (e.g., "The Sunday Times", London, 10 May, 1999).  We'll post the ten best right here in a few weeks.


Sez You...

Susan Tilney wrote:

If it is English language, and not words of American origin, that count in counting k's, then what about: kickback (and antikickback); knock-kneed (do hyphens count?); knickknack; the Biblical Habakkuk; and the Canadian Takkakaw Falls?

Ah, here we have even more English words containing three k's (see Issue 38).   We must, however, note that there are only three k's in knicknack, at least in the unhyphenated form.  Your proper nouns are fine examples even though we were really seeking common nouns, among other parts of speech.  Susan, you're OK!


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