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)
KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism