Looting the Raj

Francis Robinson explores words and language plundered from the sub-continent.

A party game, which I sometimes like to play, is to ask the assembled company how many words they can find in English that have come to us from India.

We usually start off with curry and kedgeree, move on through sahib and sepoy and then begin to get stuck after raja and fakir, although the odd bright spark with a taste for lateral thinking might pull off juggernaut or gymkhana. In fact, our language is littered with many words that we use so freely and in such mundane circumstances that we never suspect their oriental past. Take this simple sentence:

In common usage here a chit
Serves for our business or our wit.
Bankshal's a place to lodge our ropes,
And Mango orchards all are Topes.
Godown usurps the ware-house place,
Compound denotes each walled space.
To Dufterkhanna, Ottor, Tanks,
The English language owes no thanks;
Since Office, Essence, Fish-pond shew
We need not words
So harsh and new.
Much more I could such words expose
But Ghauts and Dawks the list shall close;
Which in plain English is no more
Than Wharf and Post expressed before.

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