Hindi words add masala to English lexicon

The list of Hindi words that are now part of the English language is long and endless.

By Anthony D’Silva

Published: Mon 15 Feb 2021, 11:51 PM

Oxford Languages naming aatmanirbharta (self-reliance) as the Hindi word of the year for 2020 forcefully brings home the message that Hindi and Urdu have been enriching the English language with colourful and catchy words, long after the British left Indian shores.

You are surprised, achcha? How about this? The Oxford English Dictionary inducted into its hallowed pages as many as 70 Hindi words in one year alone (2017), adding to the 900 existing words identified as ‘distinctive to Indian English.’ Many of these words were added because ‘Indian speech has a highly specific vocabulary with no direct equivalents in English’, according to Oxford English Dictionary.

Call it the growing influence of the Indian diaspora, the rising popularity of Bollywood films or the legacy of the British empire, many Hindi words are now easily understood and used by foreigners, and some have become such an integral part of the English language that very few know they came from Hindi!

During the Raj, the British sahibs were both amused and appalled by the sight of thugs, dacoits and fakirs, as they sipped their cha in the verandas of their bungalows, cooled by a punkah. Incidentally, this sentence contains as many as nine Hindi words, now all part of the English dictionary. Raj, of course, refers to the British rule of the Indian subcontinent, Sahib is master, thug is from Hindi thag (thief, swindler), dacoit (from Hindi dakait), fakir (a religious ascetic), cha or chai (tea), veranda (from Hindi baramda), bungalow (from Hindi word bangla used to describe houses constructed in Bengali style) and punkah (Hindi pankha, a crude manually operated ceiling fan).

The Raj gave the English language countless such Indian loan-words, including gymkhana (basically a gentlemen’s club), hartal (a mass protest involving a total shutdown), lathi (a heavy stick used by the police), maharaja, maharani, nawab, loot (from Hindi lut, meaning to plunder or steal), and even juggernaut (linked to Jagannath yatra where a massive carriage carries the image of Lord Jagannath and adopted by the British to refer to very large trucks).

Over the years, Hindi words have kept crawling into the English lexicon. Open any English dictionary and you will find untranslatable Hindi words, such as jugaad (an innovative idea providing a quick and smart way of fixing a problem), dadagiri (intimidating or bullying behaviour), chamcha (a sycophant) and my all-time favourite, bindaas (a Bambaiya word that refers to a person who is carefree and daring, ready for any adventure).

The word ‘achcha’, widely used in common parlance across the Subcontinent, was added to the English language just a few years ago. It means good or okay, but can also be used as an expression of surprise. More intriguing is the including of words like timepass, a cute Indianism which stands for passing the time doing nothing! Then we have chup, an untranslatable word which means keep quiet but also has shades of mischief! And who doesn’t know Namaste?

Not surprisingly in a country with a rich gastronomic history, many of the Hindi words found in the English dictionary come from food, such as gulab jamun, keema, mirch masala, chaat, chutney, biryani, roti, papad, raita, etc.

The list of Hindi words that are now part of the English language is long and endless. Here are a few more: Cashmere (fabric spun from the fine wool of the cashmere goat), jungle (Hindi word jangal), chutney (from Hindi chattni) popularised by the British when they exported it to Australia and North America, and so other many words that pass for English, including dungaree, masala, khakhi, karma, mogul, mantra, nirvana, pundit, guru, pajama, shampoo (from champo) and dingy (dingi).

Anthony D’Silva is a Dubai-based writer and PR consultant.

More news from Opinion