Saturday Magazine
The Language Lobby
A tot of Arabic sweat - it's coconut!

Did you know that the Sinhalese word "Alavangu" - a crowbar - comes from the Portuguese "Alavanva"? When it comes to language, we do have a lot to contend with. For instance, we always thought that it was the Portuguese "Almario" that gave us the English "Almirah" but in truth, the English had the word "Aumbry" that became the Portuguese "Almario" and then became again the English "Almirah". What came first? The chicken or the egg?

Today’s Language Lobby is considering a sort of impregnation and how language began to enrich itself, especially in those heady colonial days when the British had to weather a sort of storm of local words they needed to be familiar with and, by usage, enqueue them in his own lexicon. A fine example is "Anicut" - the small river dam that holds and regulates the water in irrigation channels. This was never an English word. Take a train from Kelaniya to Polgahawela and will see, amidst an expanse of rice fields, the white stone legend, "Kitawala Anicuts". The word is from the Tamil "Annaikattu". For that matter the Sinhalese "Are" (stream) is also from the Tamil "Aru".

In these troubled Middle-East days, the toper will be consoled to know that the word "Arrack" comes from the Arabic "Araq" which means to sweat; hence a distillation. Imagine. We take a bumper of Arabic sweat and are most cheerful. (No sweat, man, have another!) The Sinhalese "Arakkala" (usually pronounced "arikkala") - one-eighth - also comes from the Tamil and all new dictionaries will give us the word "Asweddum" which is pure Sinhalese "Aswedduma" - a land that has been brought into cultivation. D’Oyly did state that "the asweddum of one person is not of any considerable extent". Your dictionary will also give you "Asweddumization" and "To Aswedummize", meaning to convert land into a paddy field.

In old Jaffna, between 1796 and 1807, there was an assistant revenue collector who was called by the Dutch the "Aumildar". The word seems to have disappeared, and, strangely enough, it came from the Persian, "Amaldar", a revenue collector. Likewise, the "Baas" (and we have very few of them around what with all the baasses going to Dubai) comes from the Dutch and means foreman or carpenter. This was also anglicized to "Boss". The Dutch also had a measure which was chiefly used in the cinnamon trade: one "bahar" (744 pounds). For other commodities, the Dutch bahar was 480 pounds. The Dutch brought us the word "bahar" from Arabia and we also have the Sanskrit "Bhara" which gave rise to the Arabian "Bahar".

I need hardly dwell on Bankshall Street, "Bankshall" came into use from the Malay and Javanese "Bangsal", a warehouse. Bankshall Street was fronted by warehouses in the old days. However, there is some doubt about the etymology of "Bangsal" and some insist that it is "Bangasala" and adopted by the Portuguese who brought the word from India.

Some Tamils still use the word "Vettei" and "Vattal" for small fishing boats. In the article, "Boats and Canoes of Ceylon " by J. P. Lewis, that appeared in the "Times of Ceylon" of 1914, a boat called the "Batel" is described: "It had a prow ending in a curious curl... and with a bow-shaped stern. It carries a high-peaked sail which extends from the bow along the boat for about three fourths of its length. Sometimes there is a small mast at the stern which carries a jigger."

Today, government offices still pay "Batta" to officers especially those working out of station. It became an accepted English word and was brought in from India, from the Hindi "Bhata" - extra allowance to officers, soldiers, etc., when in the field. For that matter, "Bazaar" is also from the Hindi as well the Persian "Bazar" - a permanent market or a street of shops.

The British took time to accept the word "Ganja" and in early reports always referred to it as "Bhang" - again from the Hindi. The Dutch had their "Boodes" (messengers) who usually carried documents from one office to another for small coin. The messenger was always tipped and you will find the "Boodes" equivalent in the old English word. "Tipstaff". In Sinhalese, the Dutch "Boode" became the "Bode Rala" or process server. Another Dutch expression was "Boedel Kamer" - the testamentary or estate funds deposited with the Loan Board. This gave rise to the Sinhalese "Budale" - the estate of a deceased person.

Let’s not forget that our word "Boutique" originally came from the Portuguese "Butica" - a small native shop or booth. Another interesting adoption was the word "Boy" which the pukka sahib used here on the domestic servant, the menial, the hotel waiter. The term caused some indignation, naturally, when young Binkie Potts sits in the Galle Face Hotel and sings out, "Boy! Double Scotch!" and the "boy" is a grey haired waiter with a neat "porroppe" who resents being so patronized. The word has its roots in Telegu and Malayalam "Boyi" and the Maharatta and Hindi "Bhoi". Portuguese writer Simao Botelho, in "Tombo do Estado da India" 1554. which was published in Lisbon in 1888, tells of "Boy do Sombrero" - a palanquin bearer, and "Boys d’aguoa" servants in general.

If you go to the port of Colombo, you will see, sooner or later, the Maldivian "Buggalows" sail in. In 1886, Colonel Henry Yule and Arthur Burnell published their book "Hobson Jobson - A Glossary of Anglo-lndian Words and Phrases and of Kindred Terms’. In it, a "Buggalow" is described as "the old-fashioned vessel of Arab build with a long ‘grab’ stern, i.e. rising as a long slope from the water and about as long as the keel, usually with one mast and lateen rig."

"Buggalow" comes from the Arabic "Baqala" and this word gave rise to the "Bagla" or "Bagala" in Mahratti.

The Dutch called "Bakje" and from it came the English term "Buggy cart". The "Bakje" was a small trough or box or well in which the driver of the cart could place his legs. The Sinhalese found good use for the word "Bakje" too and so we have the "Bakkiya" - the small well in the cart where the driver places his legs.

The English "Bund" - a dam or dyke - comes from the Hindi "Band" which means the same; while the Sinhalese "Bangalawa" comes from the Hindi "Bangala" and perhaps also from the Bengali "Banga", which in India was a house built after the Bengali fashion. The British made it "Bungalow" - a thatched cottage which was in use in the provinces and in military cantonments. If we built our "Bungalawas" with "Cabook" we must remember that the latter word came from the Portuguese "Cabouco" or "Cavouco", meaning Quarry. The Portuguese quqrried here for laterite or disintegrated gneiss which they used for gravelling roads and also for building material. The humble "Cadjan" roofing of the early bungalawas comes from the Malay word "Kajang".

Even the word "Candy" which is so American-sounding, comes from the Tamil and Malayalam "Kandi" and the Portuguese "Candil". This "Candy" is actually a weight measure. Even the

"Catty" we use comes from the Tamil "Katthi" - a knife or billhook - and the old Jaffna man will still tell you of the small boats or skiffs called "Champankara" that brought the coast Moors from South India to Ceylon long long ago. The word comes from the Malay "Sampan".

The chank shells blown at temples and to signal ceremonial occasions, are found in quantity in the Gulf of Mannar. The English word "Chank" comes from the Sanskrit "Sankha". As we know, the chank with its spirals opening to the right is highly prized.

In old British homes in this country, the "boy" was always set to dust and clean. In the bedroom, he had to particularly clean and dust the "Charpoy". This word was quickly Anglicized from the Hindi "Charapoy" which meant an abject with four feet. The Brits liked the word. The bedstead was naturally the Charpoy, especially in estate bungalows where Tamil "boys" could relate to the word.

I think this business of word assimilation is quite vast and there’s a lot more to be considered. However, there is also this problem of space and may I have your permission to continue this in the next Lobby? But, before I bow out, don’t forget that when you are sending someone a "Chit" - a small note - this word was also not originally English. Many a time was I given chits by my class master and told to take it to the headmaster. All the chit said was "Six cuts!" The word comes from many sources: the Hindi "Chitti", the Tamil "Chiddi". The note could be terse and its spread to all manner of things - leave chits, sick chits, race chits, pay chits - something small but to be taken note of. Like a chit of a girl? No, not that sort of chit. If that’s a short terse note you’d better watch out. Before you know it you’ll be, as in the musical, riding a chitty-chitty bang-bang!