Bindaas to Videshi

Words of Southasian origin are steadily making their way into the Oxford English Dictionary.

In 1879, the Oxford University Press appointed Professor James Murray as editor of the challenging "big dictionary project", aimed to supplant Samuel Johnson's groundbreaking, but in many respects incomplete, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Murray's first step was to publish "An Appeal to the English-speaking and English-reading Public in Great Britain, America and the Colonies", to find volunteers to trawl through the world's English-language literature – not only for words, but also for illustrative quotations to trace their history and use.

Murray viewed English as a nucleus of words whose 'Anglicity' was unquestioned. This nucleus, he believed, was surrounded by a periphery of dialectical, slang, technical, scientific and foreign terms – the last now mostly grouped into varieties of English such as Aboriginal or Nigerian. Foreign terms included many from the Subcontinent as well, collectively referred to as Anglo-Indian, although a surprising number actually originated in Ceylon (Buddha, puja, rattan among them). Even the Maldives contributed atoll. Today, this general division is acknowledged, with Indian English and Sri Lankan English recognised as varieties of British Standard English.

Murray was fortunate, for Colonel Henry Yule (and A C Burnell, before his death in 1882) were compiling the first major Anglo-Indian dictionary, Hobson-Jobson: A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, etymological, historical, geographical and discursive (1886). There occurred not merely a general compilation overlap but a specific overlap of entries, so consultation between Yule and Murray led to refined definitions and shared use of quintessential illustrative quotations. The dictionary's Anglo-Indian aspect was further enhanced by the input of two enigmatic American volunteers, the better-known being the certified insane convicted murderer William Minor, who spent his youth in Jaffna. As documented in Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman: A tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary (1998), Minor researched for decades in a book-stacked cell at Broadmoor Asylum, England. Lesser-known is Fitzedward Hall, who had resided in India, gained fluency in Hindustani, Bengali, Sanskrit and Persian, then moved to England and, after a fearsome academic dispute, became such a recluse that even his family fled.

Murray and his successors' monumental effort, the 10-volume New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, was published in complete form only in 1928. Five years later, it was reprinted in 17 volumes as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and in 1989 a second edition (OED2), an amalgam of a supplement and the first edition, appeared in 20 volumes. This monumental work contained 291,500 entries, defining 615,100 words illustrated by 2,436,600 quotations. With the advent of OED Online at the turn of the century, work began on a revised and expanded third edition (OED3), which may ultimately define a million words but is expected to take some 36 years to complete.

Preponderant 'M'
For the new project, an appeal for volunteers similar to Murray's was broadcast, and this writer answered the call from Colombo – with the request, readily accepted, that I restrict my research to Sri Lankan English. In 2001 and 2002, I read 150 descriptive books and novels about Sri Lanka published between 1681 and 2000, searching for references to the 90 words of Sri Lankan origin or association included in OED2. Apart from providing a greater range of illustrative quotations, on occasion I suggested a revised definition or new entry for a word commonly found, or discovered an antedating quotation that proved that a word was first used prior to the date given in OED2.

Work proceeded from 'M', because the first two-thirds of the dictionary present the greatest challenges: documentary material was scarce in Murray's time, and editorial style unsettled. Commencing at M is advantageous, as it does not vary; N words can involve KN-, for instance, while K words can involve C-, PH- varies with F, etc. Nevertheless, across the alphabet, key words have also been revised and new entries created. Therefore, the words examined here cover a reasonable alphabetical range. OED3 definitions and quotations are occasionally abridged, etymologies bypassed, and the citations for quotations simplified. The date in parenthesis following the word under scrutiny denotes known first use. Entries are new except where indicated.

M words, being preponderant, result in a mélange. Masala, n. 2. (1986), labelled fig Indian English – "Piquancy, pep, vigour, excitement" – first appeared in an advertisement: "The … Casseroles sure put the masala back in our marriage." Hybrid mixie, n. (1986), is labelled Indian English: "An electric food processor; a food mixer or blender. Also appositive, as mixie-grinder." The Sunday Times of India (1992) reports: "Today the market has moved from mixie-grinders to Marutis." There is also mirasdar, n. (1796), "In India: a hereditary owner, esp. of land; (spec. in South India) an owner of inherited land prohibited by law from being sold, and leased instead to tenants for a nominal fee in return for its cultivation". Next is mohalla, n. (1825), "Chiefly in South Asia: a neighbourhood or municipal ward, freq. one inhabited by a particular social group", is supported by an emotive quotation from Bombay's Independent (1991): "It should not have been allowed to pass the Muslim mohalla. If this is accepted, Hindus in their own motherland would be virtually second-class citizens." Lastly mundu, n. (1918), labelled Southasian and defined: "In Kerala and other parts of southern India: a large piece of cloth worn wrapped around the waist and (when worn by men) frequently having the lower back edge pulled up between the legs and tucked into the waistband."

Beyond 'M', the initial entries investigated are broadly social in nature. Some words represent colloquial Indian English, and the earliest use of many occurred in recent decades, such as the alphabetical frontrunner, bindaas, adj. (1993), now popularised by Bindaas TV. Labelled Indian English colloq., it is succinctly defined: "Bold, independent; admired; fashionable". This avoids the sexist illustrative quotations, exemplified by the earliest from India Abroad, "I have watched MTV at TV shops, and what I like about it is the bindaas (brazen) manner in which men touch women," and that from Indian Express (2000): "Imagine what would happen if the world's most old-fashioned and uptight male met with Bombay's most bindaas babe."

A similar example is eve-teasing, n. (1960), labelled Indian English: "Sexual harassment of a woman by a man in a public place." The earliest quotation, from the Times of India, suggests a university origin of the behaviour: "Eve-teasing is not, apparently, just the oafish high spirits or ill-will of a handful of male students but is rather a symptom of the strong resentment which many students feel against women in the universities." Alternatively, Show Business (1995) believes: "The dramatic rise in Eve-teasing … isn't entirely unconnected with Hindi films."

Another gender-oriented entry, less familiar in English, is mardana, n. (1940): "In India: that part of a house reserved for the habitation of men, to which women are usually not admitted." The earliest use of this word is by Ahmed Ali in Twilight in Delhi: "Mir Nihal reached the mardana, the men's part of the house." And there is pativrata, n. (1956), "In South Asia, among Hindus: a woman who is faithful and devoted to her husband," illustrated by a positive quotation from the Hindu (2000): "The serials portrayed strong women who smiled through everything … The weak 'pativrata' was now being replaced by the adamant rights-seeking dynamic wife." Then there are words that are notable in their absence. One of these is hijra, n. (1838): "In South Asia, esp. India: a eunuch, esp. one who dresses as a woman; (also) a male transvestite, an androgynous or transgender person." That this has not warranted an entry until now is odd, considering its consistent use in English for nearly two centuries.

A number of entries also concern Indian and Sri Lankan terms for outsiders, outlaws and castes. Take Mleccha, n. (1792), "Originally, in ancient India: a non-Aryan or person of an outcaste race; a barbarian. In later use: a person who does not conform with conventional Hindu beliefs and practices; a foreigner." Nalinaksha Bhattacharya writes in Hem & Football (1992): "Mother … had confirmed from the local priest that football was a game of the mlechha whites and it had never figured in any of our holy books." Caste is exemplified by Panchama Bandham, n. (1800): "Now hist. In South India: the fifth and lowest division of society, outside the four brahminic divisions, and now comprising the scheduled castes; (collectively) the members of this class, pariahs, untouchables."

As a Briton resident in Sri Lanka, I am a parangi, n. 2. (1953): "Usu. Derogatory. In South India and Sri Lanka: a European; a Christian, esp. an Indian or Sri Lankan one; a person of mixed Indian or Sri Lankan and European heritage." In Sri Lanka, parangi is employed primarily to slight the country's few remaining Burghers, descendants of 17th-century Dutch merchants. An Internet quotation (the OED now chooses less formal material) from 2000 states: "You don't want to own up to your white or fair skinned parangi heritage." Then there is poligar, n. 2. (1773) defined as: "A member of a class of marauding outlaws; [hence] a member of a people regarded as having descended from these outlaws." The Journal of the Ethnological Society (1869) explains: "There is a third well-defined race mixed with the general population … I mean the predatory classes. In the South they are called Poligars." Lastly, there is videshi, adj. (1980): "In India: foreign; coming from a country other than India." The Christian Science Monitor (2004) reports: "I suspect the rickshaw-wallahs continued laughing all day at the videshi girl who spoke only small Hindi."

In another view: "Rather a sad reflection on Indian life, especially post-Nehru." So remarked Andrew Robinson, author of Satyajit Ray: A vision of cinema (2005) and four books about Rabindranath Tagore on reading oustee, n. (1974). Labelled Indian English, the definition reads: "A person who is ousted; spec. one who is forced (esp. by the development of land) to leave his or her home". The Ecologist (1987) reports: "While the assets held by the oustees were generally undervalued by government officials, the cost of land in adjacent villages where oustees were forced to migrate was generally inflated."

Fate determines that I mention Onam, n. (1887), "A Hindu harvest festival celebrated in August-Septemmaber in Kerala, south-western India," on the day it is celebrated by Malayalis in Sri Lanka – a supplementary location that could be added. (All such comments have been forwarded to the editors.) Concluding this category is the onomatopoeic phutphuti, n. (1951). Labelled Indian English, "A motorized vehicle with a two-stroke engine, a moped; (also) an autorickshaw," earliest use was by Mulk Raj Anand from Seven Summers: A memoir: "The sahibs who came on bicycles or 'phut-phuties'."

Frisked with spice
Revision is often minimal. OED2's air-line is re-spelt airline; and with sense b. (1818), the original definition of "In nonce attributive use. Sent through the air" now reads "Designating something sent through the air. Obsolete nonce-use" and carries the same intriguing explanatory note, "The reference is to letters dropping through the air as a theosophical manifestation in India." The earliest and solitary quotation is by Kipling from In Black & White: "The Religion never seemed to get much beyond its first manifestations; though it added an air-line postal dak, and orchestral effects."

Conventional entries concerning the region's religious mélange include akhara, n. 1. (1838): "In India: a convent or monastery, esp. of ascetics. Also: an order of ascetics or monks; spec. such a group forming a militant or armed regiment (now chiefly hist.)." Sense 2. (1905), defined, "In India: a wrestling ring or pit; a gymnasium or outdoor exercise area", does not indicate the sanctity of such places, as emphasised by the American Ethnologist (1992): "An akhara is regarded as a sacred precinct and wrestlers are careful to maintain the compound with an eye toward purity." There is also mandapa, n. (1807), a. "In southern India: a temple", and b. "A temporary platform set up for weddings and religious ceremonies; a pavilion". The most recent quotation for this is by the BBC's gift to India, Mark Tully, from No Full Stops in India (1992): "A stick stood in the middle of this mandap, or platform, with mango leaves and earthen pots tied to it." Regarding padayatra, n. (1956), consider the definition: "In South Asia: a pilgrimage on foot, esp. one expressing charitable, social, or political concerns; (also in extended use) a protest march or political campaign tour". To omit the traditional, albeit eroding, spiritual purpose – say, undertaking a 550km barefoot walk to a jungle shrine to worship Lord Skanda, as happens in Sri Lanka – is a substantial flaw.

Finally parikrama, n. 1. (1877): "In Hinduism, Buddhism, and certain other religions of South Asia: the action or ritual of moving clockwise round an object of devotion as an indication of reverence; circumambulation; (also) an instance of this". Modern sense 2. (1985), "A path encircling a holy object or site, as a temple or shrine" was first used in the New York Times: "Ahuja and I walked on the marble-floored perimeter, known as the Parikrama."

In the arts-and-entertainment category, masala, n. 1.b. (1986) is the Bollywood-spawned, "A person who or thing which comprises a highly varied mixture of elements; (esp. in Indian cinema) a lengthy film musical characterised by a variety of interwoven, usually predictable themes." Its earliest use was in the Los Angeles Times (in a linguistic context): "The language is a confounding mix of Indian and English – masala English, they call it here." A welcome newcomer is nagaswaram, n. (1914). The commonest wind instrument in India, its oboe-like sound – so familiar to Europeans – has lead to many descriptions, with the earliest from A H F Strangways' Music of Hindostan: "In the temple I heard the nagaswaram, a kind of oboe with a very loud tone."

In entries labelled South Asian Dance, there is nayaka, n. (1835), "In the performing arts (esp. dance) of India: a leader, leading actor, or lead male role; spec. a male lover or romantic hero in drama"; and nayika, n. (1948), similarly defined apart from: "A lead female role; spec. a female lover or mistress, a romantic heroine in drama." The near-century that separates the first uses of both is curious. To conclude, there is rangoli, n. (1884), "A stylized or geometric design made using coloured powder, granules, or a similar substance, used in India as a decoration on a floor or other flat surface, esp. on festive occasions. Also (esp. in early use): the powder used to make this"; and qawwali, n., (1937), "A style of Muslim devotional music, now associated particularly with Sufis in Pakistan, characterized by a fervent, often improvisatory vocal delivery, accompanied on drums and harmonium."

Regarding foodstuff, a predictable new entry is, again, masala, n. 1.a. (1780), "A mixture of ground spices, sometimes blended with water or vinegar to make a paste, used in Indian cookery (and later the Caribbean and elsewhere), the ingredients and proportions varying according to the dish to be seasoned; a dish prepared with such a mixture" – especially as chicken tikka masala is now considered a British national dish, supposedly invented in Glasgow. In fact, the first British curry house opened in London in 1809, to serve returning employees of the East India Company. The entry contains two compounds with quotations from British newspapers, which further demonstrate the Anglo-Saxon penchant for Indian beverage and food. The first is masala chai, n. (1977). The Guardian (2005) enthuses: "Fans of the great Indian masala chai won't be disappointed – it's made to perfection and properly frisked with spice. The second is masala dosa, n. (1957), the making of which was published in the Sunday Times (1977): "We show you how to make a crispy pancake with a spicy potato stuffing – a Masala Dosai from South India."

An unexpected entry is ngapi, n. (1800), "In Burma (Myanmar): a pungent condiment consisting of fish or prawns which have been left to rot and then salted and dried." The same cannot be said of paneer, n. (1954), "In Iran and South Asia: cheese (traditionally curd or soft cheese made esp. from sheep's or goat's milk, but more recently also hard cheese)." Like masala, paneer is firmly integrated with British cuisine. A Birmingham Post (2001) restaurant reviewer waxes, "My panir was fantastic. The four generous pieces of Indian cheese had been sliced in half and filled with an indescribably delicious paste." Related entries include payasam, n. (1973), labelled Southasian, "An Indian dessert consisting of rice or (in later use) vermicelli, boiled in milk or coconut milk, flavoured with cardamom, and often containing groundnuts", with an explanatory note "Also (in other parts of South Asia) called kheer"; and pudina, n. (1842), "Any of several kinds of mint that grow in South Asia or are used in seasoning South Asian dishes."

With 150 words from which to choose, this overview has had to be selective. Reluctantly, categories such as fauna and flora (rajanigandha, marbled cat), titles (Rai Bahadur, Rajkumari) and languages (Mishmi, Mundari) could not be included. As things stand, politics is still under-represented. An exception is muhajir, n. 2. (1911), labelled Islam and defined: "A person who emigrates from a country which is, or has become, ruled by non-Muslims. Now: spec. one of the Muslim emigrants who left India for Pakistan at or after the time of the Indian Partition in 1947; a descendant of these people." Salman Rushdie writes in Shame (1983): "The pale skin of her mohajir ancestry burned and toughened by the sun." In these subjects still lacking coverage, however, research is ongoing. After all, as of now, only a quarter of the OED3 is complete, a reasonable juncture in such a protracted project for an overview of new entries – and a few revisions – from Southasia.

~ Richard Boyle is the OED´s Sri Lanka English consultant and author of Knox´s Words. He is based in Galle.

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Himal Southasian