Sunday, April 14, 2013

Tamil Loanwords

Lately we've been exploring words that have made their way into English from languages across the world, from Africa to Scandinavia and Russia to Hawaii. Today we're looking at loanwords from Tamil, the fifth most-spoken language in India, and an official language of Singapore and Sri Lanka. It's also one of the longest surviving classical languages in the world, with literature dating back over 2000 years.

Anaconda - We don't like snakes, and anacondas are no exception. They're among the world's largest snakes and grow to over 22 feet (6.6m) long! They're nonvenomous, but that doesn't mean they can't kill people. There are various theories as to the etymology of their name, but our favorite is that it comes from the Tamil term anaik-konda meaning "which killed an elephant", originally used to refer to a species of tree snake found in Sri Lanka. At some point, the term was wrongly applied to the aforementioned South American terrors.

A traditional Tamil catamaran.
Catamaran - This type of multihulled boat gets its name from the Tamil word kattumaram, a combination of the words kattu "tie up" and maram "wood". Traditional catamarans were made by tying logs of wood together. Modern catamarans are often used as ferries due to their speed, stability, and capacity.

Curry - A wide variety of dishes that tend to use lots of colorful spices, curry gets its name from the the Tamil word kari, meaning "sauce".

Ginger - This root, often used as a spice, gets its name from the Old Tamil words iṅci vēr meaning "ginger root". The term made its way into Greek, Latin, Old French, and finally Old English as gingifer before transforming into its modern-day spelling.

Pariah - This word originally referred specifically to the lower castes in India, known as the paraiyar, or "drummers". Members of these castes were given the responsibility to play the drums at festivals. Since the early 1800s, the term has also been used to refer to "social outcasts". It likely made its way to English via the Portuguese word paria

Patchouli - If you've ever used an air freshener or incense then you've likely smelled the strong scent of this plant from the mint family. It gets it name from the Tamil words pachchai "green" and ilai "leaf". 

Are we missing any of your favorite Tamil loanwords? Let us know in the comments, and please include a definition.