7 Words Brought to You by British Colonialism

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The British Empire once shaded fully a quarter of the world's map pink. The political reach of Britain was unparalleled, and throughout history it was one of the most dominant countries worldwide. (Research shows that throughout all history, only 22 countries haven't faced an incursion by British forces.)

The Empire brought trade, literature and governance—of a sort—to far-flung nations. The cotton trade, British imperial sea shipping lines, and the need for raw materials to power the Industrial Revolution are arguably the reason why, decades after the sun set on the British Empire, English is still the global language of business.

But it'd be wrong to think it was all one-way traffic. The spread of language wasn't just top down, from colonisers to colonies. With the spread of the Empire came the diversification of language and the bottom-up rise of certain loan words from colonial languages.

Words we use every day in modern English owe their inclusion in dictionaries to a British army officer picking up a few slang words from the cotton traders in Bangalore, street food vendors in the Caribbean, or the Boer warriors who fought against Britons just over 100 years ago. They brought them back to the homeland and they spread, becoming as British as Shakespeare, scones and smog over London.

1. JUNGLE

Place yourself in the shoes of a rich Englishman—the type likely to lead foreign expeditions—in the late 1700s. You live in a grand country house with vast surroundings; perfectly manicured lawns and ornate fountains. Suddenly you’re thousands of miles away on the Indian subcontinent, and all around you is a thicket of strange trees. What do you call it? You hear your Hindi guide calling it a jangal. You start calling it that, and bring it home. Your descendants call their home town a concrete jungle without second thought, not imagining where the term originally came from. That’s the beauty of language.

2. PUNDIT

Nowadays we are a nation of armchair pundits, waxing lyrical on football plays as if we had played in the big leagues. But in Hinduism prior to the 17th century, you could only be called a pundit if you had committed vast screeds of the Vedas, the Hindu holy books, to memory. Pandits, as they were called in Sanskrit, were few and far between—but when Britons picked up the term, we used it in a more generic know-it-all sense, and threw the praise around a little more loosely.

3. PAJAMAS

It seems incredible to think, but before British colonialists first came across Indian Muslims wearing baggy trousers akin to harem pants, called pai jamahs by the locals, in the early 1800s, pajamas didn’t really have a name. But now they do, and have become a pants and shirt ensemble, rather than simply describing the lower half of our nightwear.

4. BELEAGUER

Of course, not all of the colonial loanwords in the English language come from colonies themselves. A whole host of naval terms—including avast, skipper, keel, freight, and cruise—come from contact with other colonists maintaining their empires. The Dutch had a colony in India, and traded regularly with Britons. It’s likely there, in the lively banter of business, that one Dutch term—beleaguer—came into the English language.

5. TREK

South Africans today are often bilingual, speaking in a hodge-podge of Afrikaans and English. Back in the early 1800s, Boers, inhabiting South Africa, would load up their ox-drawn cart with belongings and go on cross-country treks. Contact with the British brought the term into English by the 1840s, and it became used for any long journey—not just one driven by oxen.

6. SWASTIKA

The word, and the symbol, stem from Buddhism – when both had a much less mendacious association than that used in conjunction with Nazism. The svastika in Sanskrit was a sign of inner harmony and well-being, with its root word svast meaning good health.

7. JUGGERNAUT

As we've seen above, the Indian subcontinent was one of the richest linguistic seams mined for English. And one of the words we now use most in politics—juggernaut—came from the religious tradition of Hinduism. The Jaganath Krishna was so named from a Sanskrit compound word that meant a world-moving god. Locals would have used the term to describe actions such as the British Empire’s overtaking of their land, and the term found its way into the conversations of the soldiers who encountered locals.

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April 25, 2013 - 9:54am
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