43 English words that originate from India
It’s a tribute to the absorptive capacity of English that there are estimated to be as many as 1,000 words of Indian origin
A few weeks ago, we looked at example of “legitimate” Indian English — expressions native to the way Indians speak the English language, which are distinctive but not necessarily incorrect. Some Indian Englishisms are merely translated from an Indian language: “What is your good name?” is the classic, since all Bengalis, for instance, have a “daak naam” that they are called by, and a “bhalo naam” (or “good name”) for the record. But “what is your good name?” is still the most polite form, in any Indian version of the English language, for finding out the identity of your interlocutor. “Is he your real brother?” someone asks, not to accuse you of having imaginary siblings, but to differentiate this brother from a cousin, who is also referred to as a “brother” by affectionate Indians.
Such cultural assumptions inevitably influence language. The widespread preference for — or at least acceptability of — vegetarianism in India makes Indian English the only language that uses the expression “non-veg” for meat, fish and those who consume them. The Indian arranged marriage culture has also had its impact on our local English. Our matrimonial ads have created their own cultural tropes with expressions that only mean something in Indian English — “wheatish complexion”, of course, and better still, “traditional with modern outlook”. Many ads require a prospective bride in India to be “homely” (that is, home-loving and a good housekeeper) and to have “passed out” — not fainted or lost consciousness, as a Brit or American might assume, but graduated — from a “convent school”; in other words, a school established by a missionary order where the medium of instruction is English.
But acknowledging the legitimacy of Indian English and many of its formulations doesn’t mean that “anything goes”. Some things are simply wrong. The Indian habit of saying “I will return back” is an unnecessary redundancy: if you return, you are coming back. I am more neutral about “revert” as an Indianism for “get back” — a correspondent saying “I will revert to you by next week” does not mean that he will convert himself into what you used to be, merely that he will issue a reply. Since the meaning is clear, objections to its use are unwarranted. But the desi practice of using “till” to mean “as long as” is simply incorrect English; it is wrong to say “I will miss you till you are away” when you really mean is “I will miss you till you come back”! “I am staying Bandra side” is not an acceptable equivalent of “I am living in the Bandra area”. And “back side” for “rear” causes much unwitting hilarity, as in signs proclaiming, “entry through back side only”. These can’t be justified under the rubric of Indian English. They are just bad English.
But a lot of good English borrows heavily from India, thanks to the absorption of Indian words into the language over centuries, mainly as a result of colonialism. The writer Pallavi Aiyar, who runs an amusing and always diverting blog, recently explained: “When you shampoo your hair, in your bungalow, the jungle outside visible from the window, contemplating the latest advice from your favourite financial guru, your silk pyjamas ready to slip on — you not only sound annoying, you are also basically living in Hindi.” Avatar, bangle, cashmere, cheetah, chutney, cummerbund, curry, gymkhana, juggernaut, karma, mantra, mogul, nirvana, pundit, purdah, swami and yoga are also all English words, regularly used by native speakers, that readily betray their Indian origins. But how many knew that atoll, candy, chit, cheroot, chintz, coir, cushy, jute, lacquer, lilac, loot, mongoose, musk, opal, palanquin, pariah, punch, shawl, tank, teak, thug, tiffin and veranda are also of Indian descent? Tracing the origins of each would take more space than I have, but the stories are fascinating. Did you know that “calico” for textiles came from the Portuguese and British sourcing cloth from the Kerala port of Calicut — and “chilli” for fiery green and red peppers comes from an Indian mangling of the name of the Latin American country, Chile, where these were wrongly thought to have originated?
It’s a tribute to the absorptive capacity of English that there are estimated to be as many as 1,000 words of Indian origin. As Indian speakers of English will soon exceed American, the number of such words will only grow.