Dollar and booze: English words that aren't really English

The British Council's new exhibition has revealed the top 10 English words that originated overseas.

It’s widely known that the English language is an amalgamation of words originating from different countries and cultures. Words like hula, a hip-swinging dance from Hawaii, obviously didn't originate in Britain. But what about shampoo or booze? Surely these words are British through and through? Not according to the British Council.

As part of their new exhibition, The English Effect, which examines the impact the English language has had on other countries and cultures around the world, they have revealed the top ten English words that didn’t originate in Britain.

Here is their definitive list:

Dollar (German)

Dollar tops the list. Despite being synonymous with America, the word originates from the German Taler, a coin first minted in 1519 from silver mined in Joachimsthal. The word occurs in English from the mid-1500s, referring to various silver coins coins used in the British colonies in North America at the time of the War of Independence. The dollar was later adopted as the US currency in 1785.

Booze (Dutch)

Booze (earlier spelt bouse) comes from the medieval Dutch verb būsen – “to drink to excess”. It appeared in medieval English, but it is found more frequently in the 1500s, in the language of thieves and beggars. It then gradually spread to general slang and colloquial use.

Bungalow (Hindi or Bengali)

Many believe the urban myth about bungalow: that the word was coined after a builder was told to “bung a low roof” on a house when he ran out of bricks. But bungalow was actually first recorded in the 1600s, when one-storey houses were built for early European settlers in Bengal. It comes from a Hindi or Bengali word meaning “belonging to Bengal”.

Tomato (Nahuatl – Mexico)

The word tomato has been passed from country to country. Originating from Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs), the Spanish language borrowed it in the 1530s, before it came into English in the 1600s. Originally, the word was spelled tomatl, and may come from tomau meaning “to grow”.

Zombie (West African via the Caribbean)

Zombie originated in West African languages as a combination of Kikongo zumbi – meaning fetish – and Kimbundu nzambi, meaning god. But it made its way into the English language via communities in the Caribbean, southern America and other parts of the US where African communities had been brought over as part of the slave trade.

Vampire (Hungarian)

Unsurprisingly, the origins of vampire lie in Eastern Europe. Fictional tales like Bram Stoker's 1897 Gothic horror novel Dracula, the most famous of all the vampires, place him in this part of the world. The word found its way into the English language from the Hungarian word vampir.

Parka (Russian)

Parka came into English from Russian in the 1620s, but it originated among the Nenets people of the Arctic regions of Russia, originally referring their jackets made from animal skins. In the 1890s it began to be found referring to a hooded winter coat.

Shampoo (Hindi)

The meaning of the word shampoo has evolved over time. Its probable origin is the Hindi word cām.po, meaning “press”, but its original meaning in English was “to massage”, before it later came to mean “to wash or scrub (the head or hair)”. Finally, shampoo now means the substance we use for washing hair.

Magazine (Arabic)

In its original form, the word magazine meant “storehouse”. Originating from Arabic, spelled mak- zin, the word entered the English language from French in the 1500s. Reference to its original meaning can be seen both in modern French, where magasin means “shop”, and modern English military uses of magazine.

Avatar (Sanskrit)

No, science-fiction didn’t invent the word Avatar, it came from the ancient language of Sanskrit, meaning “the descent of a Hindu deity to the Earth in bodily form”. Entering English in the late 1700s, the modern, sci-fi, use of the word emerged in the mid-1980s.

 

King Alfred the Great's translation of the 'Compendious History of the World' by Paulus Orosius from Latin into Anglo-Saxon or Old English. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
MICHEL DETAY
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Be transported to an ash-shrouded Iceland with Sjón’s new novel Moonstone

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book – but there is a wonderful netherworld quality to its ashen Reykjaví.

On 12 October 1918, the Icelandic volcano Katla erupted, melting glaciers and causing floods that engulfed farmland and villages, destroying crops and killing livestock (but, remarkably, no people). The flood waters carried so much sediment that in the aftermath of the disaster, Iceland was left with five extra kilometres of southern coastline. Ten times more powerful than the 2010 eruption of its neighbour Eyjafjallajökull, the Katla blast generated an ash cloud that enshrouded the island in darkness.

The Icelandic author Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson), a miniaturist who deals in large themes, begins Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was on the night of the eruption but with his focus on a much smaller explosion: the climax of a man being professionally masturbated by the 16-year-old Máni Steinn. Máni is an orphan who is being raised by his great-grandmother’s sister. He is obsessed with cinema, with motorbikes and with one of his schoolmates: a girl he calls Sóla G–. A gay loner in an illiberal society, he lives in the unheated attic of a house belonging to a respectable Reykjavík family. Máni is the latest in a series of outsiders who occupy the heart of Sjón’s fiction.

Moonstone is Sjón’s eighth novel and the fourth to be translated into English. He has also published volumes of poetry and written lyrics for Björk. His books often contain forms of magic, although he always leaves a margin of ambiguity around supernatural events. They feature characters that emerge from the sea, or visit the underworld, or flee the Holocaust and bring a golem to Iceland.

The Whispering Muse is narrated by a man fixated on the idea that fish consumption is responsible for the superiority of the Nordic race. In 1949, on a Norwegian fjord, he encounters a sailor who claims to have crewed on the Argo under Jason. In The Blue Fox, a hunter debates philosophy with his prey before – perhaps – transforming into an animal. From the Mouth of the Whale, which may be Sjón’s masterpiece, is set in the 17th century and narrated by Jónas Pálmason, a healer and scholar operating at the stress point between science and magic. Jónas participates in one of the more memorable exorcisms in fiction.

It makes sense that Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a favourite novel of Sjón’s: his writing gives off a similar sense of flouting familiar rules. Bulgakov’s novel alternates between fantastical picaresque and an almost documentary realism and Sjón clearly enjoys blending styles, too: flick through his novels and you will find folklore, myth, realism, social comedy, local history, musical theory and surrealism. Turn a page and you are as likely to encounter a touchingly domestic description of a husband massaging his weary wife at the end of a day’s labour as you are a dialogue conducted on the seabed between a living man and a drowned corpse (whose speech is interrupted by a succession of ever-larger crabs scuttling from his mouth).

Sjón’s skill in transitioning seamlessly between such episodes is one of the great pleasures of his work, but it also helps to make one of its most important points: that stories are a fundamental part of describing and interrogating existence, and genres – realism, surrealism, postmodernism – are merely tools that help get the job done. In this, and in the way that his books are all puzzles to be solved as well as stories to be experienced, Sjón’s work borders not only Bulgakov’s but also that of José Saramago and, particularly in the funny and eerie The Whispering Muse, Magnus Mills.

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book, although it obeys the surrealist rule of awarding dreams equal status to waking life. There is no magic in it, unless we count the magic of cinema as Máni experiences it, and the netherworld quality of Reykjavík when, after being plunged into cinema-like darkness by Katla’s ash cloud, it is depopulated by disease:

The cathedral bell doesn’t toll the quarter hour, or even the hours themselves. Though the hands stand at eight minutes past three it’s hard to guess whether this refers to day or night. A gloomy pall of cloud shrouds both sun and moon. A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it were the darkest hour before dawn . . . From the long, low shed by the harbour, the sounds of banging and planing can be heard . . . It is here that the coffins are being made.

A week after Katla erupted, two ships from Copenhagen brought the Spanish flu that would quickly kill 500 Icelanders. The same day, a referendum was held on independence from Denmark and, on 1 December, the Act of Union gave the country its sovereignty. The two-month span of Sjón’s novel was, then, an unusually consequential one for Iceland – that outsider nation, that “unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”, as another of his books has it. “An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country,” Máni thinks. Unusually, “Something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.” Ironically for a nation that avoided the slaughter of the First World War, which also ends within Moonstone’s tight time frame, that “something historic” entails heavy casualties as well. For Máni, this dose of reality feels unreal. “The silver screen has torn,” he thinks, “and a draught is blowing between the worlds.”

Many authors would look to wring the maximum tumult from these events. Sjón’s interest, however, is tightly focused on Máni, and Máni’s strengths are quiet ones. He falls ill, recovers, and bravely helps a doctor treat the sick and dying in the “abandoned set” that Reykjavík has become. On the day of the country’s independence, Máni contradictorily seeks closer ties with Denmark: he has sex with a Danish sailor. Discovered, he rises above attacks from the pillars of Icelandic society, including men who have bought his body. He faces exile, which will turn out to be the making of him.

Sjón’s style is economical, lyrical and sometimes elliptical but, for all his trickster qualities, emotion never gets lost in the intricacies of his storytelling. When the meaning of the book’s subtitle is finally explained, the effect is powerful. Moonstone is about human decency, courage and respect for the individual. It is a small book with a large heart.

Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb, is published by Sceptre (147pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad