NYR iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Tabish Khair


English Hindi Words: 7 Surprising Words That Came From Hindi

Posted: 07/24/2012 12:18 pm

All languages, no matter how "pure," are full of words that migrated from other languages.

Anyone who's looked at a dictionary for more than five minutes knows that English words come from many sources, such as Latin, Greek, French, German and, of course, Scandinavian languages, not to mention those often-ignored Celtic traces. But many colloquial words also come from the other side of the globe.

Countries that were once British colonies rubbed off on their colonizer in all sorts of ways. At least 650 words in the Oxford English Dictionary are derived from languages spoken in India and Pakistan, and most of these words also exist in American English. The word "thug," which has made its way into mainstream American English, was originally a Hindi word that was picked up by the British and then brought to America decades later. Here are seven surprising English words that came from Indian languages:

Tabish Khair is the author of the novel The Thing About Thugs [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24.00], which follows a spectacular Indian "thug" and his misadventures in Victorian London.

Loading Slideshow...
  • This word originally described a specific group of thieves in India and was only used on the subcontinent. It caught on in England in the 19th century, though, when Victorian novels about murderous Indian thugs became bestsellers. From there the word came to describe a criminal more generally. But the British stories about these original Indian 'thugs' were riddled with factual errors, and <em>The Thing About Thugs</em> delves into some of these.

  • The next time you work up a lather in the bath, think of a traditional Indian barber doing a "champa" (Hindustani): the act of "pressing" your hair and head with a mixture of oils and perfumes. That's where "shampoo" comes from. Deen Mohammad, an Indian entrepreneur who joined the East India Company at the age of 12 in the mid-18th century, and later migrated to Ireland and then London, is credited with introducing 'shampoo' to the west. His bath house, which he started after his Indian restaurant flopped in London, became hugely popular and was patronized by British royalty. The man, like some of the Indian characters in the 1830s London of The Thing About Thugs, obviously knew how to sell himself.

  • This is a word that started on the humid Eastern coast of India - as "bangla" ("belonging to Bengal"). Originally it meant a small one storied house or hovel, probably used by European sailors in India. It seems to have taken on a more exotic connotation the farther it got from India -- think of the mid-war fad for the exotic "California Bungalow" in Australia.

  • This word refers to a learned high-caste Hindu, and it goes back to the classical Indian language, Sanskrit. In English today, we tend to use the word in an ironic or even derogatory manner, for instance when we refer to "financial pundits." This is not a totally new development, as not everyone loved pundits in India either. The popular medieval poet, Kabir, for instance, largely scoffed at pundits' claims of learning. In one of his poems Kabir says that the reading of thick books does not make a pundit of anyone; instead he who can read the letters in the word "love" knows as much as he needs to know.

  • Sailing for London at the end of the 18th century, another Indian, Mirza Abu Taleb, was teased by European sailors for sleeping "fully dressed." The Europeans themselves slept in underpants. In a travel book he wrote on returning to India in 1803, Abu Taleb notes that he told the sailors that, in case the ship sank at night, he would be able to get off it much faster than them. One can understand how the word "pajamas" - still used for loose traditional trousers in the East - must have crept into English, and come to stand for loose trousers and a jacket to "sleep in."

  • This word surprised me when I first discovered its origins: I knew it was a highly colorful kerchief (itself from the French, <em>couvre-chef</em>, "cover the head") worn mostly by Americans and hence I thought it probably had Latin or Native American roots. But it turned out to be derived from a word I grew up using almost daily in Hindi: "bandhana" (to tie up). It probably travelled into English by way of Portuguese and South Asian sailors (lascars), who worked on European ships in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of these lascars have a role to play in <em>The Thing About Thugs </em>too. But in Hindi, 'bandhana' did not have any criminal connotations: that is something it assumed only much later, when members of American gangs wore them in the 1980s and 1990s.

  • Deriving from ancient Sanskrit, but common to a number of Indian (including Hindi and Urdu) and Asian languages (including Persian), "jungle" meant "forest, wasteland, uncultivated land." Rudyard Kipling's <em>The Jungle Book </em>(1894) helped broaden the use of the word. In 1906, with the publication of Upton Sinclair's <em>The Jungle</em>, which exposed the horrid conditions of the US meat-packing industry, "jungle" also came to mean "a lawless and violent place." Its most recent dictionary meaning, as in "jungle music" (a type of fast dance music with an exaggerated bass line, influenced by reggae and soul), is a vital American development of an old Indian word.