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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Speak Easy: Whose Line is it Anyway?

The English language and its glorious capacity to assimilate.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal |
February 12, 2017 12:00:23 am
It is natural for languages to seep into each other. The names of exotic imports invite attention, and mapping loan words to geographies shows how international trade developed. It is natural for languages to seep into each other. The names of exotic imports invite attention, and mapping loan words to geographies shows how international trade developed.

The English language is like a great sponge, which soaks up all the cultures it encounters. It has absorbed “kowtow” from China, “baksheesh” from India and the Old Norse “ransack” and “slaughter” from the Vikings. From Caesar’s conquest, it gained solid English place names like Doncaster (castra or fort on the Don) and the very word “language”. In Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation (2014), the American wordbook collector Ammon Shea wrote, “Our language is a glorious hodge-podge that is the result of invasion, exploration, linguistic inventiveness and yes, simple error.” Just so you know, hodge-podge is an iteration of hotchpotch — a Norman legal term for a bunch of properties — infused with “Hodge”, once the generic name for an English farmer. Besides, “invasion” was when Roman galleys landed in Londinium (London) and “exploration” was when Lord Dalhousie dreamed up the Doctrine of Lapse. Two faces of the same coin.

The absorptive capacity of English for what linguists call loan words has been explored by a thriving body of popular literature which approaches etymology in the spirit of the hobbyist. Currently popular are David Crystal with his many Englishes, Eric Partridge’s diverting dictionaries of slang, Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue, Geoffrey Hughes’ A History of English Words, Henry Hitchins’ How English Became English and Ammon Shea’s immersive exploration of the Oxford English Dictionary, the mother lode of English lexicography. To this lively corpus, Shakespearean/ Elizabethan crime writer Philip Gooden has now added May We Borrow Your Language, which demonstrates, as the cover reads, “How English has stolen, snaffled, purloined, pilfered, appropriated and looted words from all over.” In order, the variations on the theme of theft are from Old English, Low German, Anglo-Norman French, Old French, Late Latin and Hindustani.

But the title is sensationalist. It is natural for languages to seep into each other, and to borrow from each other. The names of exotic imports invite instant attention, and mapping loan words to geographies shows how international trade developed. “Tamarind” entered English via tamar-i-Hind, the “Indian date”, which sounds like a popular import into the Middle East. “Sugar”, too, is of Indian origin — note the similarity to sakkara. “Jaggery” is related, too, and is particularly interesting, because the product is largely known within India, while the word is known elsewhere.

Gooden doesn’t restrict himself to business as usual. He does throw in a bit of commercial history, tracing “potato” back to Haiti, but most of the book consists of interesting bric-a-brac. “Mumbo-jumbo” is traced to the Mandingo towns of west Africa in the 18th century, where a masked dancer of that name was called in to settle differences between women, and to discourage them from stepping out of line. “Lexicographer” and “lavatory” are fairly obvious in terms of etymology, but they mark turning points in civilisation. So do “Augustan” and “Promethean”, whose roots are again pretty obvious. The simplest things are usually passed over in such collections, but not in this case: “thing” itself is covered. It embodied the import of a new letter into the British Isles — “thorn” owed to Viking incursions, and is still used in some of the commonest words in the language. Originally a special character, it is now represented by the initial letters in “this” and “that”. And “wealth” (originally wealh) has consistently provided value, right up to its inclusion in that anachronism, the Commonwealth. And bad language is always interesting, especially the bizarre attempts to create false lineages for the world’s most popular four-letter word.

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English lexicographers have a good time with food words, since the language has different words for an animal frolicking about and the very same animal as the piece de resistance. “Pig” and “pork”, “cow” and “beef”, “sheep” and “mutton” are the leading examples, and the pattern has invited lively speculation — the name of the living thing generally owes to an insular tongue, while the name of the food is an import from the Continent. A political explanation was once offered for this pattern — after the Norman Conquest crushed the older communities of the UK, only the invaders had the wherewithal to put meats on the table. Presumably, the older inhabitants were getting by on onion and leek soup, the oldest vegetables cultivated in the isles.

India is represented only by two words of religious origin — “nirvana” and “juggernaut” — besides the archaic “doolally”, which described someone off his chump. It derived from the British army transit camp at Deolali in Maharashtra, a place infamous among the colonial English for ennui, miasmas and madnesses.

One feels a void here, because the British army in India took back a disproportionately large number of local words in their kit bags. (Gooden’s earlier book, The Word at War, was wanting in this area). Monsoon (Arabic) and catamaran (Dravidian) are commonly quoted, but my personal favourite does not figure on the many expat and Tommy lists online. The British Indian army’s long service medal, popularly known as the “rooty gong”, survives only in the OED. “Rooty” is the Bengali form of roti, and it was, perhaps, thought that if anyone had survived a career-load of military rotis, he deserved a medal for courage and endurance.

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