Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Language contact and idioms: out of India

My explanatory and etymological dictionary of English idioms is now in the publisher’s computer, and, most probably, I won’t discuss the material contained there until I find out whether the book has been accepted, but before that happens, I would like to touch on the subject mentioned in the title.

Though hundreds of proverbs are international, I included very few of them in the dictionary, because they seldom have “an etymology,” and describing their sources (Ovid, Cervantes, universal wisdom?) has never been my goal. Idioms are also sometimes borrowed, but much more rarely than proverbs and words. However, the overlap between English and French in this area is considerable. Familiar quotations from Classical Greek and Latin, to say nothing of the Bible, are taken for granted. A few idioms seem to have come from India, which is not surprising, considering how long British servicemen lived in that country. The Indian connection has rarely been discussed; yet it deserves a brief mention.

Henry Yule’s book Hobson-Jobson, an immortal monument to Indian British, reads like a novel; it contains both words and phrases. Many of them are “exotic” and may therefore be disregarded here. In principle, words reflecting the realities of a foreign land and tied to those realities present minimal interest abroad. Such Russian nouns as samovar, babushka (pronounced in English with a wrong stress and meaning what it does not mean in Russian), tsar, pogrom, or sputnik cannot be separated from their Russian context (that is, users never forget the word’s country of origin). Some words from India belong to the same sphere. Many people know the meaning of guru and pundit (even if they never use either), and even more have heard of yoga. Such words belong with samovar. They are messengers from abroad and retain their guest status.

Sir Henry Yule (by Theodore Blake Wirgman)

A borrowing is assimilated only when it loses its exotic tinge. Pogrom is of course from Russian, and no one will doubt it, but millions of people who have recently read and heard about thugs and looting will be surprised to hear that both thug and loot are words from India. As usual, several degrees of foreignness can be discerned: bungalow (which, from a historical point of view, means “belonging to Bengal”) is rather obviously Indian, while verandah is, I suspect, perfectly domesticated. And gazebo? This is a different story (refresh your Latin and think of placebo and especially of lavabo; in connection with the second of them remember that shampoo is also from India). As usual, the etymology of some words of the type mentioned above is controversial. For example, punch (the beverage) may be from India, but there are a few difficulties.

Perhaps the most interesting item in my collection of Indian and supposedly Indian phrases is that’s the cheese “that is the real thing,” known in print since 1840 and allegedly popularized by comedian David Rees. Its Anglo-Indian origin was suggested as early as 1864 and is now recognized by many authorities (though the OED says “probably”). Other explanations testify to the richness of people’s imagination and the power of folk etymology. An anecdote has often been repeated about a dimwitted boy who ate a piece of soap and thought it was cheese. Also, cheese in this phrase has been traced to a low courtesy made by whirling the gown or petticoats around until they are inflated like a balloon or resemble a large cheese. A witty Englishman has been conjured up, who instead of saying c’est une autre chose “that’s a different thing,” said that’s the cheese. The idea that cheese here is related to choose has nothing to recommend it either. For more details about this idiom and Rees see my blog for 24 December 2014.

I wonder whether anyone can today recognize the phrase brass knockers. My two citations for it go back to 1878. The phrase is apparently not in the OED. It means “the next day remains of a dinner party.” Both correspondents to Notes and Queries (such correspondents have been my faithful informants for decades) suggested that the phrase originated in Anglo-Indian from Hindustani basi “cold” and khana “food, dinner.” If this explanation (which on the face of it seems a bit strained) is correct, brass knockers is a typical example of Hobson-Jobson.

The only authentic brass knockers. (Images by dennisflarsen.)

Another seldom realized angle to a seemingly borrowed idiom exists. In the context of the present blog post, a good example is the inconspicuously looking phrase of sorts, “of a certain kind.” The OED has a record of it going as far back as 1597. The phrase, which Shakespeare used at least twice, need not always have had the depreciatory sense “of an inferior type,” because it often occurred in inventories. But here is the point. For some reason, this nearly meaningless idiom enjoyed great popularity in Anglo-Indian and possibly became familiar thanks to Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), who liked to use it. Kipling’s ties to India need no proof (even those who know nothing about his life and political views will remember his Jungle Book), but—and this is not the first time I am mentioning this fact—today, few people realize how famous he was. Whether Kim or Captain Courageous, everybody who could read did read and remember his works. Before him, only Dickens enjoyed such popularity.

In the 1880s, the phrase indicated that the noun to which of sorts is appended was not understood too literally: it might be due to a lack of precise information on the part of the speaker or writer and was  frequently tacked on as “conversational garnish” of no very definite meaning, that is, of sorts was “a parasite,” like our modern you know, a marker of insecurity or even self-effacement (“I am saying it, but I don’t want to press the point: it is up to you to decide”). And also in the 1880s, of sorts was the latest slang at Cambridge! The phrase is “pure British,” but without its wide use in India, it may not have returned “home” with such success.

Cinderella is unabashed. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

And a final note on the differences between British and Anglo-Indian usage, as regards idioms and their popularity. To pull one’s leg “to trick, deceive” seems to be widely known. The phrase is late (no pre-1821 citations in the OED) and has an obvious slangy flavor. In my opinion, the existing explanations of its etymology (search for them on the Internet) don’t have a leg to stand on. Did this phrase ever have opprobrious connotations? Since the overtly sexual word leg (hear, hear!) was unpronounceable in the Victorian epoch and the euphemism limb was substituted for it, the idea of its origin among “the lower orders” or the “swells” who imitated them does not look too far-fetched. But even in 1913, few people in England knew it (it is sometimes called a Scotticism, but no evidence for this statement seems to have been presented). Yet as early as the 1870, the shocking idiom was widely used in India. Does it follow that some of the inhibitions prevalent in England did not spread to the colonies? And did the prince who married Cinderella pull too many legs before he found the bride who satisfied him?

On this immodest note, as stated earlier, my discussion of idioms will grind to a temporary halt, unless I receive questions and comments from our readers.

Featured image by Harikrishnan Mangayi

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.