Sanskrit Words in English

Etymologies are fascinating. Often, they are redundant in terms of actual historical analysis (see e.g Latin cohors) but fascinating none the less. Here’s a brief post on Sanskrit loan-words in English, which I am very roughly demarcating, like Gaul, into three parts.

This is a brief post because I haven’t had much time to write. It is by no means exhaustive, just a bit of fun with words.

I Pseudo-Etymologies

This isn’t really a category, but it’s best to get it out of the way first. Pseudo-etymologies are exactly what you would expect from the name. Sometimes these arise from almost correct parallels e.g taking Sanskrit mātṛ and English mother and arguing that the latter is progeny of the former. Sanskrit is one of those languages which attracts a lot of pseudo-linguistic nationalist nonsense. Greek too, see below:

II Words for specifically Indian things

Most of these were acquired during the period of the Raj, these were words taken over to describe unique Indian things. E.g Brahmin, Guru, Pandit, Banyan tree and so on. Still, there are some interesting ones such as:

Bandana – bandhana (tied, bonded)

Candy – I suspect this has been a round about one! Ultimately from Skst khaṇḍaḥ but passed through Persian and then back into Hindi before being borrowed via French. Cf Punjabi khand for sugar, which I suspect comes from the Persian which comes from the Middle Indic…

Dinghy – dinghi (a small boat).

Loot – Ultimately from the verb luṇṭhati (he steals) which drops the n-infix in verbal nouns (luta, a stolen thing). Interesting semantic web here along with mugger, thug etc.

Mugger – actually, this gets its own lemma. From makara (sea animal), often used of crocodiles. From an early period has the sense of our ‘mugging’. Eg a crocodile is a magaramachchh from makara and matsya (fish). A crocodile is a fish mugger! (when not writing on its blog). I suppose if I write one more post about Sanskrit I should change the blog name to makara vyakaranya.

Orange – naranga (orange). I have tweeted about this before. In English it has undergone rebracketing, e.g we thought the initial n was attached to the indefinite article: a narang > an arang > an orange. See also nick name: an eke name > a neke name > a nick name. Common sound change in English!

Thug – From Hindi thug and ultimately Sanskrit stagha (a scoundrel, thug, bandit). Not the dropping of the initial s, common in Indo-European sound changes, hence Latin toga rather than stoga. Sanskrit does this a lot actually with p and t. E.g spy is spas from the verb pasyati (he sees, watches).

III Words transmitted through the Classics

We’re not used to thinking of India in the classical world outside of Alexander’s brief foray. Yet, the conqueror didn’t just leave an indelible mark on the sub-continent in the form of the Indo-Greek kingdoms, his conquests opened new avenues of trade and the passing of ideas. Even before that, the Achaemenid Empire served to connect Greece and India – though it would hardly do to overstate the strength or importance of these connection. Here’s a handful of words:

India – Yes, that’s right, the modern name for the country comes to us via Greek. Ultimately from Sanskrit sindhu (river) whence it passed into Old Persian as Hi(n)duš and thence into Greek. Note, the shift from s > h is common to both Old Persian and Greek but not to Sanskrit, so for example the number seven (7) in Latin is septem, Greek hepta, Old Persian hapta, and Sanskrit sapta. All ultimately from PIE *septḿ̥. It must have passed into a psilotic Greek dialect in order to lose the rough breathing, from there into Latin and then slowly down into English.

India remains the name of the country today. Oddly, sindhu as river seems to have died in modern Indo-Aryan. So ancient sapta sindhu (seven rivers) becomes modern Panjab (five rivers) from the Persian. See also Doab (two rivers). Whereas we’d expect something like pancha sindhu if the native wording was preserved. (Two rivers having dried up).

Ginger – Greek zingiberis from Sanskrit singabera. Once a much-valued spice prized by Rhodian merchants. Now we just pretend to like it in our tea.

Musk – Greek moskhos from Sanskrit muskas.

Nard oil – Greek nardos from Sanskrit nalada.

Pepper – Greek piperi from Sanskrit pippari.

Rice – This one always got me. Greek oryza ultimately comes from Sanskrit vrihi(s), meaning rice. I believe, oddly, this route has died out in all modern Indo-Aryan languages.

Sandalwood – Greek sandalion from Sanskrit candanam/candalanam.

Sugar – this is the classic one! From Sanskrit sharkara we get Greek zakhare and several derived terms such saccharine.

Ideally, I’d go on to a 3.2 and discuss Greek loans into Sanskrit. I can’t think of many from the top of my head. There is, of course, Yauna meaning Greek (from Ionians, via Persian) and, wonderfully, the Macedonian dialect word for spear – kontos – is used in Sanskrit for cavalry lance (kuntah), but that’s about it.

If you’re interested in reading more about Sanskrit and the Classics, I have a slightly more in depth post here.



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