The Origin of Words and Phrases: India

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Podcast Transcript

The British ruled India for over 200 years. 

During that period, the British attempted to impose British culture on India. While they were somewhat successful, especially in exporting India’s national sport of cricket, they unknowingly were influenced by India as well.

It turns out that words from several languages on the subcontinents have made their way into English. Many of these words are common words you use every day, even though you might not know they have Indian origins.

Learn more about English language words of Indian origin on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Whenever two people spend time together, you can expect some of their personalities to rub off on each other. 

The same is true with cultures. 

When the British colonized India, they brought with them elements of their culture, such as the game of cricket, which is the national sport of India today. 

However, the culture transfer wasn’t a one-way street. India also influenced the British. One of the most popular dishes in the UK today is Chicken Tikka masala. 

However, there was another area where India had a profound influence: the English language.

English is very different than most languages. It is constantly evolving and adopting words and phrases from other languages. Old and Middle English are basically incomprehensible to modern speakers of the language because of how much the language has evolved.

Unlike French, for example, there is no official academy that tries to authoritatively declare what English is. 

As such, words get picked up and added to the language from other languages when they have a word that better describes something.

So, it shouldn’t be surprising that the English language has been significantly influenced by India. 

Before I get any further, there are several things I should note.

The first of which is that when I say “Indian” influence, I’m mostly referring to traditional or British India, which may include modern-day Pakistan and Bangladesh, not just the Republic of India. 

Second, is that there is no single language in India. In fact, there isn’t even a single language that is spoken as a native language by the majority of the population. 

The most widely spoken language is Hindi and Urdu, which are basically the same language. There are some differences, but that is for another episode.

In addition to that, you can find Bengali, Punjabi, Tamil, Marathi, Malayalam, and many others. On top of that, there is the ancient language of Sanskrit. 

So, with those caveats, let’s get started with some words that you are very familiar with. 

The first of which is shampoo

The use of herbs and elixirs as hair products has been practiced in India since ancient times. There is evidence that the ancient Indus Valley civilization used such products. 

When British traders from the East India Company first arrived in India, they would often take part in a daily bath, which would include what was known as a champu in Hindi. A champu was basically a head massage that used hair products as part of the process. 

In the early 19th century, a Bengali doctor named Dean Mahomed brought the practice of shampoo to England, which he offered as a mix of a Turkish steam bath and a scalp massage. 

As more hair care products were developed, they used the term shampoo to describe the products, not just the experience.

If you shampoo your hair at night, you might slip into something which is another word which came from India: pajamas.

The word Pajama comes from the Urdu word paijaamaa which roughly translates to “leg clothing” or “leg garment.” The Urdu word most probably comes from a Persian word meaning the same thing.

These garments were simply loose-fitting pants that were worn by many different people in different segments of society.

They were originally called ??mogul’s breeches in the early 17th century, but they were a fad that fell out of favor. 

It was probably the Portuguese who developed the habit of sleeping in these garments, and that was adopted in Britain in the late 19th century. The word then evolved to describe any sleeping clothing, including shirts. 

Several other clothing-related words originated in India. 

Dungaree is a very thick fabric originally made out of calico. Today, it is often synonymous with denim. The term is also used to describe bib overhauls. The term comes from the type of cloth used by workers who hailed from the village of Dongri outside of Mumbai. 

Likewise, calico gets its name from the city of Calicut, in the state of Kerala, where the fabric hails from.

Cashmere spelled with a ‘c’ comes from the Kashmir region of India, spelled with a ‘k’, and in particular, from kashmir goats. 

The word bandana comes from the Hindi/Urdu word bandhani, which is a brightly colored handkerchief. It comes from the Sanskrit root word bandh, which means to tie or bind.

The word Khaki refers to a color, and it was a direct loan word from Urdu for ‘soil-colored.’ The name of the color, of course, was later used to describe a style of pants with that color.

Finally, a shawl is a very common garment worn over the shoulders in much of India. The word came from India, but it was probably originally based on the Persian word shal.

If you live in a tropical area, you might have something next to you, which is another word that comes from India: jungle.

Jungle comes from Hindi via the Sanskrit word ja?gala, which means rough and arid. Oddly enough, the original Sanskrit word means almost the opposite of the current meaning of jungle in English.

How the word for a rough arid region came to describe a wet forested region isn’t known. One theory is that the tangled aspect of the word was emphasized as the word became Anglicized. Another theory is that the word was originally Persian, and it referred to a forested area. 

Either way, the term came into use in English in the 18th century.

One word that you might be surprised has an Indian origin is the word orange.

Prior to the 13th century, there was no word for the color orange in the English language. It was referred to as red-yellow or yellow-red. The word entered Middle English via the Old French word orenge. The word initially only referred to the fruit and not the color. The place in France known as Orange has a totally different history.

The French word came from Italian, which, in turn, got it from the Sanskrit word n?ra?ga?, which means an orange tree. The Sanskrit word probably came from a Dravidian language in South India, possibly Tamil, Telugu, or Malayalam.

Another two closely related words also originate in India: thug and mugger.

Thug derives from the Urdu/Hindi word thag, which means “thief” or “con man.” It is also the basis for “thuggee,” which was a type of Indian organized crime that existed from the 17th-19th centuries. 

In the early 19th century, the British called members of a thuggee ‘thugs.’ 

While they sound similar, the word mugger derives from a totally different world. The Hindi and Urdu word magar comes from the Sanskrit word makara, which refers to a crocodile. 

There is a species of crocodile in India known as “mugger crocodiles.” They are known for sneaking up on their prey, which is how the connection was made with thieves. 

A mugger or a thug might walk away from their crime with some loot. The word loot comes directly from Hindi, and the word means pretty much the exact same thing. Loot is the basis for the English words looting and looter. 

There are a surprising number of words that deal with homes and buildings that are all of Indian origins. 

Bungalow, veranda, and Pagoda all have Indian origins.

Veranda comes from the Hindi/Urdu word baraamada. How it got into English isn’t quite known as it may have come directly from Hindi/Urdu or the Portuguese might have first adopted it and then imported it into English. 

Bungalow comes from the Urdu/Hindi word bangla, which refers to a house made in the Bengali style. 

Finally, the word Pagoda might surprise some people as being Indian in origin because pagodas are usually associated with countries in East Asia, such as Japan and China. Nonetheless, pagoda is believed to come from the Tamil word pagavadi, which means “house belonging to a deity.”

There are several sweet words that most people probably don’t realize have Indian origins: candy, sugar, and punch

The word sugar took a very circuitous route to get into English. It didn’t come from British contact with India. Rather it came from the French word sucre, which itself came from the Arab sukkar, which came from the Sanskrit word sharkar. Cane sugar originated in South and Southeast Asia, and it traveled west due to Arab traders. 

The word candy also took the long way to get into the English language. In ancient India, sugar cane was boiled to produce a substance known in Sanskrit as khanda.  In Persian, it became known as qand. In Arabic, it became known as qandi. And finally, in Old French, it was çucre candi.

Candy began being used in English in the late 13th century. 

Punch, the beverage, comes from the Hindi/Urdu word for “five.” It comes from a drink originally made with five ingredients: alcohol, sugar, lemon, water, and tea. The drink was originally known as paantsch.

The words I’ve gone through are words that most people probably don’t realize have Indian origins. This doesn’t even begin to list all of the words that are commonly used and have more obvious Indian origins, such as yoga, yogi, curry, chutney, karma, guru, sari, and swami. 

It should be noted that the influence of India and Pakistan on the English language is by no means over. 

Believe it or not, India is the second largest English-speaking country after the United States. Only about 10% of the population in India speaks English, but that is 10% of an enormous number, which roughly translates to about 180 million English speakers. 

Likewise, Pakistan is the third largest English-speaking country, with about 108 million speakers. The population is smaller, but the percentage of the population that speaks English is a bit under 50%. 

In both countries, almost all English speakers do not speak it as their first language, but it is an enormous number of people who can have a profound effect on the language. 

I’ll give you a recent example of India’s influence on English that I have noticed from my travels. 

The use of the word ‘kindly’ in replace of the word please. For example, I have seen signs, not just in India but in other countries with a sizable Indian population, that said something like “kindly shut the door.”

In researching the Indian use of ‘kindly,’ I discovered that it might not actually have originated in India, but rather it was an older use of British English that has somehow survived in India and is now being propagated by Indian English. 

I’ve also noticed the use of the word “pleasure” in lieu of “thank you.” There is a good chance that many of you listening to this have never encountered this, but it is just a short form of saying “my pleasure,” which is more of a British than American expression. 

However, I’ve personally only noticed this in India or places with a sizable Indian community.

India and other large English-speaking countries like Pakistan, Nigeria, and the Philippines will probably only have greater influence over English in the years and decades to come. That really isn’t surprising because they’ve already been doing it for hundreds of years.