English is a mongrel tongue. It’s a language that betrays influences from every modern language you could care to name and several that no one speaks any more. The British picked up these words as they set out to invade and conquer the world, sending them back home with the exotic spices, jewels, fruits and other spoils of war.
In the case of the Indian subcontinent, you can trace the development of words that have been purloined simply because they describe things that did not exist back home in Blighty, as well as some that do a better or more affectionate job of naming a thing than had been heard before (not the least of which is Blighty itself).
Here are five examples:
To take the full trip back into this word’s past, you need first to be aware of the little linguistic cul-de-sac that the British seem to have invented for themselves. The British English spelling is pyjamas, possibly because it’s pronounced “p’jamas” and not “pahjamas.” This has rather caught on, especially in former British colonies. So outside of the U.S., that is the spelling most people use. However, it’s a word that derives from the Hindi pāyjāma, which is itself a combination of the Persian pāy, which means leg and jāma, which means garment. So a pāyjāma is a loose-fitting cotton pair of trousers, suitable for hot weather. Pyjamas are the same thing (with a top to match), spelled in such a way as to try to dispense with the leg bit as quickly as possible.
This is not as old as you might imagine, given how many modern-day pirates seem to bang on about it. In the late 1700s (ie. towards the latter end of the golden era of sea piracy), with international trade dominating the Western World, the Hindi term lūṭ came to be used to describe the spoils of theft. Its Sanskrit cousin luṇṭhati means “to steal,” as in “he steals a chest of gold doubloons from the captain’s hold, arr!”
Curiously lute, the musical instrument, dates back far further, to the early 1300s. Which means that for 400 years of their heyday as the principal instrument of the medieval era, lutes were never looted.
On a similar note, anyone rocking a “Thug Life” tattoo may wish to be made aware that the term derives from an organization of robbers and assassins in India in the early 1800s, who were especially violent highwaymen, attacking travelers and killing them. The word itself comes from the Hindi word thag, which means rogue or cheat. “Scoundrel Life,” while being an even older-school equivalent, would perhaps be a little less impressive.
We begin with the Hindi expression cāmpnā, which means “to press or squeeze.” This became corrupted as champo in the early 1700s and came to mean massage. In India, it was traditional for people to rub a liquid preparation of herbs and soap into their hair to clean it, massaging it in and then washing it out. Indian traders took up the practice, which became known as a shampoo—as in the hairdressing term “a shampoo and set”. Then, as is the way of language, the word became synonymous with the liquid preparation itself. You shampoo with shampoo, then condition with conditioner.
This is a fascinating example because it may or may not come from Hindi or Persian roots. It’s one of those terms that shows the influence of a few different nations along the way. There’s the Spanish baranda, meaning a railing or balustrade, which the Portuguese picked it up as varanda, and took around the world. Meanwhile, there’s the Persiab term bar āmadaḥ—which means coming out—and then the subsequent Hindi words baraṇḍā or barāmdā.
Put together, you have two similar words that collectively mean standing outside by a rail, as one might do on a veranda. Mind you, why would British people have need of a veranda in the rainy old U.K. anyway? It’s a word that only makes proper sense to people building homes in a hot country.
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