Home Columns Anantha Narayan The Almirah of Etymologies

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    Okay, quiz time. Which European empire lasted the longest in India? I expect quite a few of you to get this wrong. No, it’s not the Brits. Even accounting for the East India Company, they ruled us from 1612 to 1947. That’s like 335 years.
    In contrast, the French sphere of influence lasted for 288 years. While the Dutch presence was for 220 years. The guys who beat them, fair and square, were the Portuguese. They lorded over Goa for nearly 450 years.
    With such a long footprint, the Portuguese naturally influenced our culture in ways we can’t even fathom. For starters, they gave us the potato, tomato, pineapple, guava, papaya, cashew, capsicum, chilli, tapioca and the chiku fruit. Maybe I should add peanuts, corn, okra, litchi, vindaloo, kalkals and tobacco, too.
    A bouquet of words in our native lexicon owe their origins to Vasco da Gama land. The Tamil word for key is nearly the same as the Portuguese ‘chave’. Dravidian purists would be aghast to know that jannal (window), rosa (rose), koppai (cup), mesai (table), pena (pen), pippa (barrel), mestri (mason) and verandah (porch), have a mystic Lisbon connect.
    Hindi has been a liberal borrower as well. Balti (bucket), santra (orange), ayah (nanny), kamra (room), pav (bread), chai (tea), biskut (biscuit), sabun (soap), padri (priest), almari (almirah), kameez (clothing), kaju (cashew), batata (potato), and madira (wine) derive their roots from words minted in Portugal. Even colloquialisms such as istri, toliya and iskuul come from Portuguese words esterar (to press), toalha (towel) and escola (school).
    Some very familiar angrezi shabd have a similar linguistic connection. Labrador, for example, is named so because it was first bred in the Labrador Peninsula in Canada. Incidentally, the area was discovered by the Portuguese explorer Joao Fernandes Lavrador.
    Emu, the largest bird native to Australia and a synonym for Ponzi schemes in Tamil Nadu, is etymologically a Portuguese word that means ostrich.
    So many more Indianisms like palanquin, mosquito, indigo, commando, coconut, caste, buffalo, banyan, breeze, cobra, jackfruit, pomfret, tank and teak, wouldn’t be around had a 15th century bearded sailor not uttered, ‘Eastward ho!’

    Anantha Narayan

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