The etymology of words

Amal Chatterjee
6 min readApr 13, 2017

Source : Google photo

It is always amusing to learn the etymology of words that have been assimilated into a language over a long period of time leaving people no clue about where the words originated . Most people do not even know what etymology means let alone how words evolve and become a part of their mother tongue.

I have been curious about the origin of many English words and found out that many words commonly used in English have their origin in the Indian languages like Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu, Malayalam etc. English as a language has become rich by taking words from many sources over a long period of time but their origins are often shrouded in the mist of time until a language expert comes along and points out the source.

Once I pointed out this fact to an American Peace Corps fellow working in my village in Burundi where I worked when he snickered and asked arrogantly what Indian words English had borrowed showing his ignorance and the flippant way he asked.

Let us today shed some light on this subject and discover many interesting facts on how languages become rich in their vocabulary by borrowing and assimilation. Let us go over to Devon countryside in England where two old India hands are sitting in their veranda in their pyjamas and sipping toddy while discussing their good old days in India where they had served and how they could not do without going to gymkhana . Their modest bungalow was filled with Indian memorabilia but they prized their hookah that they enjoyed smoking together. They were the pukka sahib who had gained their experience in India and were considered experts or old India hands.

When their wives asked what they should wear to the party in the evening that they had promised to go to, one of them said that his cummerbund needs pressing and his jodhpurs as well while she is at it. She then winked and said the price was a case of chutney and dal so that she could put up a decent dinner with moghlai korma and chapatis to which they happily agreed. They thought that colorful bandannas and bangles would make them look blighty good.

The 18 words highlighted are all of Indian origin. Wikipedia will show you numerous such words that came from Indian languages during the British colonial period but new words are coming into vogue all the time.

They talked about how satan had ruined the life of someone they both knew who had taken to alcohol and ganja in a destructive way and saw no way out of it. Here alcohol and satan come from Arabic while ganja is from Hindi.

Avatar, Cheetah, cot, cushy, chit, chowkat, dacoit, dekko. dinghy, dungaree, guru, juggernaut, jungle, khaki, karma. lota, loot, mantra, nirvana, punch, pundit, roti, raita, shampoo, thug, typhoon and yoga are from Indian languages like Hindi and Urdu that are now a part of English lexicon. There are many words from Malayalam, Sanskrit, Telegu and Tamil that have found their way into the English language often a bit modified in spelling but there is no need to elaborate it any further.

Let us now consider how other languages fare when it comes to assimilation. In the Philippines the word saksi is used in the TV programs but they do not know that it comes from the Sanskrit word Sakhsi meaning a witness. They also say atsara which comes from the Hindi word achar meaning pickles. If you really dig, you will find many words they have taken from India without even knowing it. Another word they use is guro meaning teacher . It comes from the Sanskrit word Guru. How and when it happened is obscure but all languages borrow words from others to enrich their language or when they can not find an equivalent word of their own.

There are people who take pride in inventing their own words. Thus the Vietnamese people who had no word for ice in their language call it nuoc da meaning stone water. They call a helicopter may bay truoc thanh literally meaning a flying machine that goes up and down so when word is non-existent, a simple description will do.

Similarly the Filipinos call a lizard butiki because it makes tik tiki sound or owak for a crow because it makes oaak oaak sound. Bengalis call the lizard tik tiki for the same reason so there are numerous words that come about because people just invent it by imitating the sound of it.

The French were delighted when they coined the word amerisage which came about when astronauts landed in the ocean returning from their space flights so a word is created when the need arises. No one willingly landed in the ocean before the astronauts so there was no need for the word. They say aterisage for planes landing on an airstrip.

I will now see how my mother tongue Bengali has borrowed from other languages. They say hanspatal ( from Hospital ), ketli ( from kettle), towalay ( from towell), sykel ( from bicycle) etc. This sort of thing happens to all languages. English has borrowed heavily from Latin, Greek, Arabic, Indian languages as mentioned above and it is an ongoing process making it a language of choice now. Almost everywhere you will find people who speak, read and write English well that has made English the language of the commerce, science and entertainment worldwide.

The assimilation does not stop at borrowing the words but goes on to influence the names as well. When I was in Saigon which is now called Ho Chi Minh City, I was discussing the influence of Sanskrit in the names the Cambodians take. The good example was that of Prince Norodom Sihanouk who had a perfectly Cambodian name but it has its origin in Sanskrit. Norodom is Nor uttam in Sanskrit meaning a superior man and Sihanouk is Sinha meaning lion and hanu meaning jaw in Sanskrit so his name translated into the Superior man with lion jaw. I bet many Cambodians will chuckle at knowing this but such is the way etymology works.

You probably did not know that albatross, alchemy, algebra, admiral, adobe, alcove, algorithm, alkali, alidate, ambergris, anilene, apricot. artichoke, arsenal, assasssin, attar, average, azimuth, azure, benzene, borax , almanac, camphor, carat, caravan, caraway, chemistry, cipher, coffee, cotton, crimson,damask,elixir, kohl etc. have come from Arabic.The list is long and interesting .

Anyone who studies languages and is curious will find a wealth of information on the etymology of words, how they develop and become part of another language over a period of time. I also think that some words become dated and are no longer used as better or more current words replace them. In a war movie an American colonel offered libation to anyone who would show some courage. It is a dated word although some people still use them. Words in use 30 or 40 years ago are now discarded just like old model cars . Now we live in the era of abbreviations like LOL. OMG, ASAP, THNX etc. because texting has brought about these abbreviations for the ease of use so the language suffers.

Now the teachers complain that the students are such poor spellers and with poor grammar that makes them wonder how they will fare in the modern world. If you make such mistakes in your resume, chances are you will not get a job.

The language is a skill like driving. You get better with practice but it means one has to constantly learn and improve the vocabulary and the use of words, its nuances and its oblique meanings at times. Those who insist on literal translations never get past the first base. The beauty of learning any language well depends on the speaker’s or the writer’s ability to enthrall people. Great orators have this skill. I will not mention Hitler but that is what I just did. Oops.



Amal Chatterjee

I am the village bard who loves to share his stories.