Thursday, May 31, 2012

Pub quiz: guess the word origin

"They took everything we had – and then they came back for our language."

Most countries have a historical association with the British, usually based on folk memories of several thousand red-coated psychopaths coming over the hill and grabbing everything of value, leaving nothing but a signed portrait of Queen Victoria and the rules of cricket printed on a tea towel. Even after the empire had gone, we continued our campaign of international cultural vandalism through a triple-pronged assault of football hooliganism, The Benny Hill Show and the first four Black Sabbath albums. 

An Englishman's idea of 'abroad' should resemble a weekend in Cleethorpes but with nicer weather. As I have discovered, if you ask for the local delicacy and insist that you don't want chips with it, most foreign waiters will assume you are Irish, Australian or Canadian. Not only will they then give you better service, but they won't ask you to return the nation's valuables - which have been in a locked cellar in the British Museum since 1879 - or accuse you of selling their great-uncle into slavery.

And yet, when it comes to language, the British have been remarkably open-minded about other people's. We notoriously despise their cuisine, take no interest in their culture except to steal it and regard their history as seriously lacking unless it contains a regiment of the British Army. But when it comes to words, we'll happily blag anything that's going, either because it expresses a concept we don't have a word for (pyjamas) or we just like the sound of it (kharzi). So an English-speaking cricket commetator has no problem using the Urdu word doosra for a certain type of delivery, but a French football commentator risks the wrath of the Académie Français if he says kick instead of the correct but unwieldy coup à pied.

So, pour yourself a pint of foaming best bitter and see if you can guess where English stole the following words. Most English vocabulary comes from Low German, French, Latin or Greek, so there are no examples from those four. Two of the names are also related to the names of geographical regions, and one also gave its name to a well-known language. Award yourself a whisky chaser if you can guess (or already know) which.

Anorak
Arsenal
Balcony 
Bungalow
Galore
Guerilla
Horde  
Juggernaut
Kamikaze 
Kharzi
Robot
Typhoon

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Anorak 
The 'ak' combination gives it away as a non-English word. Not surprisingly, it's from the Greenland dialect of Eskimo-Aleut, where such an invention was essential for survival.

Arsenal
This comes from Arabic, and was transmitted into European languages during the seven centuries of Muslim Spain.

Balcony
This effectively means 'high wood beam' and comes from Italian via the Germanic Lombards, though I have also seen it claimed as Persian. Since their language is technically a closer relative of English and German than French is, it wouldn't be surprising if the Persians came up with a very similar-sounding word for a similar thing. It also means we can pretend that, when Xerxes invaded Greece in the 5th Century BCE, he looked at the mountainous, wooded country to the north and named it 'The Balkans'. Sadly, that's a fantasy since the name didn't come into use till over 2,000 years later. There might also be a Turkish origin. Somewhere on the internet, Turks, Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians will be fighting to the virtual death on this one. My advice is, don't join in.

Bungalow
From Gujarati. A one-storey building common in Bengal, from which it takes its name (similarly Bangladesh). 

Galore
Irish Gaelic, meaning enough, so it's galling that one of its more famous uses is in the Scottish novel and film, Whisky Galore. 

Guerrilla
Spanish. War is one of the few Germanic words to force its way into Romance languages, with W being replaced by G to make guerre in French and guerra in Spanish. In the Peninsular War, the Spanish fought small actions against Napoleon's forces, calling them "little war": guerrilla.

Horde
Mongolian, of course. The ordos is a Mongolian camp, and the dialect spoken in the Mongol camps in northern India became known as Urdu. But Europeans adapted the word and used it to describe the people instead (the Poles added the 'H'). At its peak, the Russian branch of the Mongol Empire was so wealthy that was known as The Golden Horde, which to my mind is one of the best names any country has been given. The European football championships will be played in part of their old territory in a few days. Wouldn't "England v The Golden Horde" look great on the fixture list?

Juggernaut
Hindi: the large cart on which the image of the god Krishna was conveyed: jagat - earth, nath - lord. 

Kamikaze
Japanese. When Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis, tried to invade Japan, his fleet was driven back by sacred winds (kami kaze). The Japanese invoked the same spirit when trying to fend off the Americans in World War II, and the English word describes their methods rather than the original sense.

Kharzi
Zulu, meaning latrine. It's one of the coarser slang words for lavatory, but I love the sound of it. Not to be used in polite company. Kenneth Williams' character in Carry On Up The Kyber (the best of the Carry On films) was the 'Khasi of Khalabar'. 'Up the Kyber', of course, is rhyming slang and is too rude to explain here. 

Robot
Czech. Robota means forced labour and the 'rbt' combination betrays its relationship with the German arbeit. The word even found its way into French during the ancien régime, when a peasant's duty to work on the lord's land was known as robot. The word was adapted by science fiction writers after Karel Capek used it in his 1920 play RUR.

Typhoon
Chinese. But you knew that one already, didn't you?

So, how did you do?

4 comments:

  1. Of coure, a proper bungalow, as I'm sure I don'ty need to tell you, would be pukkah - brick-built ...

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  2. Do you mean tycoon or typhoon? Typhoon is from Chinese, but tycoon is from Japanese

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    Replies
    1. Sorry, I botched that last-minute change.

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  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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