Op/Ed Commentary: Chris Devonshire-Ellis
Aug. 10 – One of the great things about living in Asia is the sheer diversity of culture and, especially for someone who writes a lot about etymology, an abundance of words. Words that are now Anglicized used to belong to different, often ancient, Asian cultures and their meanings or origins have often been lost or changed over time. The title of this article alone, apparently so cheeky and sexy, has little to do with its original intentions.
“Sugar” is Sanskrit in origin (as is the word often associated with it, candy) and derives from the Arabic word “sukkar,” meaning “grit or gravel.” That in itself is a reference to granulated sugar. The Arabs themselves actually introduced the cultivation of sugar cane in Egypt, Sicily and East India. Cultivation began in Asia in latter day Vietnam and Indian Bengal. Sugar, being sweet, has now morphed into an affectionate term for other people while retaining its original meaning.
“Juggernaut” again originates from Sanskrit, but today is more often used to describe chrome-plated, massive trucks, blaring horns as they swagger, king-like down national highways in countries like America and Australia. Poetically, the corruption of the original word “jagannatha” means “lord of the universe.” Jagannatha, a form of Vishnu, is a revered deity in the Indian State of Orissa. Once a year, Jagannatha, his brother Baledeva, and sister Subhadra, are taken from the Temple of Lord Jaganath in Puri and pulled through the city. It is from these chariots that the word “juggernaut” is derived. Looking up at some of the drivers of modern juggernauts, all raybans, red complexions and baseball caps, smoking on a Marlboro, and I’d suggest the comparison is rather apt.
“Jiggy Jiggy,” the phrase you’ve been waiting to hear about, actually has part of its origins in Japanese, where it means “make haste.” However, the older Chinese origins of the word, the characters “zhi zhi” mean “straight straight” and were originally intended as directions to errant coachmen. It’s now, of course, the standard slang for a quickie in girlie bars across Asia and most of the Middle-East and Eastern Africa. Those horsemen must have been prolific.
Other words we take for granted also have Asian origins. The ubiquitous bangle, the item of jewelry so beloved of certain ladies, originates from the Hindu word “bangri,” meaning a wire or glass bead bracelet, a meaning it still holds today. Likewise, “bhang” is still a Hindu slang term for cannabis, while hashish derives from Arabic. When eating preserved fruit, the kumquat is from the Cantonese term “kin ku,” meaning gold orange, and still can be found in markets today, especially during Spring Festival. The summer soup mulligatawny is from the Tamil language, translating as “pepper water” and originating in Madras, latter day Chennai. In hunting, the term “pug” is used to describe the prints of an animal, but was exclusively used originally to denote those of the tiger. Its origins again are Sanskrit, but the usage has widened from the original species. Musically, the tom tom drum is also Indian, while the typhoon season is upon us in Asia, a word derived from the Chinese “tai fung” or “great wind” is used. Finally, the popular film Avatar’s very title is Sanskrit in origin, meaning simply “an incarnation on earth of a divine being.” I wonder if James Cameron knew that when making the Na’vi blue he was following a tradition of various fierce gods being the same color in many Tibetan temples.
Language has unusual origins, with much to learn from our own usage of certain words and even terms that were once alien to us. Ancient languages often live on in modern English (I’d love to hear stories on this subject from other European linguists with similar tales) and goes to prove that, over the centuries, trade between nations is really nothing very new at all. Furthermore, the social and linguistic intercourse that has arisen is really, at the end of the day, nothing uncommon whatsoever, and buying and selling between the new world and the old goes back centuries. We are but median possessors of an ancient lineage of observers.
Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the principal of Dezan Shira & Associates and the publisher of 2point6billion.com. He has spent the last 25 years living and working in Asia. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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