[Every few months I write an article about language for the Victorian Bar News. The piece is called A Bit About Words. Many of the earlier articles have been published in WordWatching, (Scribe, 2004; revised and enlarged edition: Scribe 2013). On this blog I will publish some more recent word articles.]
I was in Sri Lanka when I began to write this essay. With the unmistakable stamp of Dutch, Portugese and English colonial times still clear on its landscape and language, it seems natural to explore some of the ways Sri Lanka has left its mark on English.
Curry is a ubiquitous dish in Sri Lanka. It was introduced into England in the 16th century by English explorers. W. Phillips in 1598 wrote: “Most of their fish is eaten with rice, which they seeth in broth, which they put upon the rice, and is somewhat soure..but it tasteth well, and is called Carriel.” And in Knox’s History of Ceylon (1681) “They..boyl [fruits] to make Carrees, to use the Portuguez word, that is somewhat to eat with and relish their Rice.” It was not a Portugese word – it is a Tamil word – but the Portugese had it from their travels, and Knox assumed it was Portugese. The Tamil word was kari, and the Portugese was caril, but in days before Johnson, when English orthography and the British Empire had not reached their maturity, the wrong spelling and inaccurate attribution are both understandable.
Also from Portugese is vindaloo. It comes from a Portugese dish called Carne de Vinha D’Alhos. (The OED2 also has it as vin d’alho). Whatever spelling you prefer, it was Portugese for “wine and garlic”. The vin(h) bit is wine, obviously enough. But the English garlic is unrelated to its romance counterparts: French ail, Spanish ajo, Italian alio and Portugese alho. Although garlic was, for a long time, foreign to English cooking, the word garlic comes from an Old Engish root gare + leek and is thought to correspond to the Norse geirlauk. Perhaps because it is so closely associated with the Mediterranean, the Esperanto for garlic is ajlo. And the botanical name of the plant is Allium sativum. Although garlic crept into Indian and Sri Lankan through the Portugese influence of vindaloo, it did not get to Indonesia, where garlic is called bawang putih.
We have quite a few words from Tamil, including anaconda (“having killed an elephant”); cheroot, conjee, coolie, mulligatawny (“pepper water”), pariah, popadam and teak. Strangely, we have very few words directly from Sinhalese. The only familiar ones are beri beri (from Sinhalese beri meaning weakness) and tourmaline, and it has to be conceded that tourmaline is not all that familiar, although it has the edge on chena (a form of shifting cultivation in Sri Lanka) and dissava (a governor of a district of Ceylon) and punatoo (the preserved pulp of the fruit of the palmyra palm).
Tourmaline is a brittle pyro-electric mineral which occurs in crystals. It is a complex silico-borate with a vitreous lustre, it comes in black (schorl), and also blue (indicolite), red (rubellite), and green. Sometimes it is colourless. It also occurs in various rich transparent or semi-transparent forms and is used as a semi-precious gemstone.
However Sri Lanka has left an indelible mark in our language, in a quite unexpected way. Known since ancient times the island, which sits as a tear-drop below India, was originally called Taprobane. Later it was called Serendip, then Ceylon and now Sri Lanka. In 1557 Michele Tramezzino published a book titled “Peregrinaggio di Tre Giovani Figlivoi del Re di Serendippo” (which translates in English as “Wanderings of Three Young Sons of the King of Serendip”. It was later translated into French and German, and from the French into English (in 1722), although it was not translated directly into English until 1965. The book told the exploits of three princes whose success in exotic adventures owed much to chance, although in the original stories, the princes show powers of deduction which would have impressed Sherlock Holmes.
Having read the 1722 translation, Horace Walpole (son of prime minister Robert Walpole) coined the word serendipity and referred to it in a letter on 28 January 1854 addressed to Horace Mann, George II’s envoy in Florence. He wrote “This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity.” In the letter, he went on to explain how he coined the word. “I once read a silly fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right – now do you understand serendipity? …”
It is a mark of Walpole’s standing (then) as a writer that he could create a new word, in a private letter, and that word was later embedded in the language. But the OED notes that the word was not much used until the 20th century, and it does not record an instance of its use until 1880, so Walpole probably did not realize that he had left a permanent mark on the English language. It is a mark of Walpole’s standing (now) as a writer that serendipity is remembered while his novels are all but forgotten.
In the collected edition of Notes & Queries: For Readers, Collectors and Librarians Edward Solly wrote that Walpole had coined the word as referring to a particular kind of cleverness. He gave a more accurate account of it in 1878 and defined it as “the discovery of things which the finder was not in search of”. In 1880 Solly refined the thought when he wrote: “The inquirer was at fault, and it was not till some weeks later, when by the aid of Serendipity, as Horace Walpole called it—that is, looking for one thing and finding another—that the explanation was accidentally found.” This quotation is given in the OED, but not the comments from 1875 and 1878.
It is notable that serendipity came to be used with increasing frequency in the 20th century: by 1958, it had been used in print about 135 times; during the 1990s it was used in newspapers about 13,000 times. It is thoroughly familiar now, although its meaning has been degraded so that it is now used as a synonym for chance or accident.
And from Serendip we also have serendibite, a boro-silicate of aluminium, calcium, and magnesium, found as bluish triclinic crystals. It was first found (presumably while looking for something else) in Ceylon and was revealed to the world in an article by Prior and Kumaraswamy in Nature on 20 February 1902. (In the manner of the times, Kumaraswamy’s name was spelled as Coomára-Swámy).
Because the English dominated Ceylon for a relatively short time (1796-1948), the language of Ceylon had much less opportunity to influence the English language. By contrast, the long presence of the English in India (which originally included the areas that are now Pakistan and Bangladesh) presented us with a rich legacy of Hindi words. These include (among about 400 other words) such thoroughly naturalized words as: chutney, dungaree, jungle, kedgeree and pundit. Less obviously, they include:
basmati (fragrant); now specifically a fragrant variety of rice;
chintz; a false plural from Hindi chint, a painted or stained calico;
choky: a lock-up, from Hindi choaki;
damn: an ancient coin of very little value; hence ‘not worth a damn’;
juggernaut: the uncouth idol of Krishna at Pūrī in Orissa, annually dragged in procession on an enormous car, under the wheels of which many devotees are said to have thrown themselves to be crushed;
loot: goods taken from an enemy in time of war;
mandarin: (from Hindi mantri: a generic name for all grades of Chinese officials; there were nine ranks, each of which was distinguished by a particular kind of ‘button’;
phut: broken down (it sounds a bit old fashioned nowadays, but it’s still understood);
pukka: proper or correct in behaviour, socially acceptable;
punch: the drink traditionally made from five ingredients, from Hindi panj meaning five. This derivation is treated by the Oxford as contentious (see the OED2, vol XII, p. 835). I prefer to accept the side which attributes it to the Hindi origin. Dr Johnson accepts that origin without hesitation. He asserts that “Punch is an Indian word expressing the number of ingredients”. He lists five ingredients. I am with Johnson on this.
shampoo: to shampoo originally meant to press or massage, and became more general in meaning, so now to subject (the scalp) to washing and rubbing with soap, etc.;
thug (originally thuggee): one of an association of professional robbers and murderers in India, who strangled their victims; and
veranda. This has mixed origins. It is from India, where it is found in Hindi varanda, Bengali (and modern Sanskrit) baranda. Parallel constructions are found in Portugese and Spanish varanda /baranda meaning railing, balustrade or balcony. It is possible it was introduced into India by way of those languages.
And of course the bungalow, which generally has a verandah, is a corruption of the Hindustani bangla: belonging to Bengal.
 I am indebted to Sally Bodman for this little nugget