A Semantic Masala: Oxford English Dictionary Fills up With Indian Words


“So you see, chacha, that bada chaudhuri has tried his dadagiri on me but I saw through his natak and now he is being a chamcha instead.” I am still writing in English? Yes, I am, according the current wordlists of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Indian language loanwords have long been a part of the English language. The imprint of the colonial legacy on speech and writing is epitomized best by the famed Hobson-Jobson, the 19th century collection of Indian-origin words in English. It’s a book in its own right in its size and offers enough amusement for a handful of boring autumn evenings, although from the perspective of modern knowledge it also contains a lot of misreading and mistakes. But just like the influx of South Asians to Great Britain grew much stronger in the post-colonial era and influenced British society in a number of ways, so too does the inflow of Indian words to the Oxford English Dictionary continue.

The quarterly summaries of new entries on the dictionary’s website attest to this and offer an interesting live chronicle of language change and culture contact. While the recent inducement of the word “post-truth” was perhaps the addition that attracted the most attention from Western media, the summaries for 2017 also reveal dozens of new Indian-language words. Among these, the Northern Indian Hindu/Urdu or Punjabi loanwords reign supreme but other languages, such as Tamil, are also represented.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

If I were to group at least some of these entries into thematic categories then, unsurprisingly, one of the leaders is food and food ingredients. Thus, there is bhindi (okra), chana and chana dal (chickpeas and the meals prepared with that main ingredient), gosht (meat), gulab jamun (a dessert which you can’t miss when in north India), keema (minced meat), mirch (chilli), namkeen (literally “salty” but also a general term for spicy and salty snacks), and others. Gradually, the Oxford English Dictionary is making itself more and more useful when one needs to order a dish in a good restaurant in Britain.

Another group are the kinship terms. The 2017 entries include anna (Tamil for “elder brother”), abba and bapu (father), chacha (uncle, more precisely “father’s younger brother,” but also more generally a term of respect or a word denoting a leader of the group), mata (mother), and others. Notably, all of these can be used more broadly to address certain people in a given context with respect. The additions are not only about Indian families being a part of the British family but about including the respectful terms that Indians use when addressing others besides their kin.

Interestingly, the new Indian loanwoards also include a strong team of terms originally coming from Sanskrit, the usage of which denotes higher style in languages like Hindi. Here one finds bhavan (“palace,” or more generally an important, larger building for special purposes), nagar (city), nivas (abode), sevak and sevika (man and woman servant, respectively), udyog (industry), and others. This group also includes surya-namaskar: a traditional and ritual homage to the sun, and a yoga posture.

But what I would like to focus on are words like accha, bas, dadagiri, jugaad or natak. I am bundling them together in a manner that may seem artificial but I do have a point to make here. Such words are very common, indeed ubiquitous. They do not represent a more narrow group (such as kinship terms), but may be used in various contexts and belong to every day speech. Accha literaly means “good” but it also serves as an exclamation. Semantically, it is a word of wonderful flexibility. Depending on the context and the way we say it, it may mean “all right,” “really?,” “So it’s so…” and other things. Bas can mean “enough” or “stop!” but also “only.” Dadagiri is bullying, intimidation: the typical actions of dadas, the gangsters, the bully boys of the neighborhood, the people that try to dominate others. Natak is “dramatic art” in a very classical way but in the common tongue it is also “drama”: making a fuss about oneself, dressing up everyday problems in overemotional gestures and words straight from the movies. With such words, we may really build everyday conversation in Hindi.

And there is my favorite: jugaad (pronounced more like “jugaar,” but with a retroflex r). The Oxford dictionary explains it with a precision of a surgeon: A flexible approach to problem-solving that uses limited resources in an innovative way. Much of contemporary India is jugaad. Jugaad is when people in the villages cannot afford to buy themselves cars and invent vehicles on their own.. When Mahatma Gandhi used to ride in a Ford car drawn by oxen it might have been also due to jugaad. The vehicle, by the way, was aptly called Ox-ford. At that time, that Indian man rode an “Oxford” – now the Oxford dictionary rides on Indian words. Jugaad is when you throw whatever you can find in the fridge into to the meal because you can’t afford (or don’t have time) to purchase what should go into it according to the recipe. Jugaad is the genius of the people faced with economic and technical problems.

I think it important to note that these words show a deeper understanding of Indian reality. You can’t grasp the life of North Indians without knowing what jugaad, dadagiri, and natak are. And of course I do not speak of words as such but of the fragments of life which their meaning reveals. Staying in a regular Indian neighborhood one will sooner or later meet the machine-fixing guy who tries out all kinds of jugaad, the auntie whose nataks may from time to time wake up the entire bloc and, unfortunately, the local dada who enforces his dadagiri.

I hold nothing against the appearance of such loanwoards in English. To the contrary, such a process is natural and unstoppable. No language is pure. A term such as “loanwoard” is misleading in itself: a huge percentage of words in many languages had been “loans” at some time in the past. But with regard to the British-Indian encounters I find the nature of this linguistic influx changing. Jugaad is finally here and with it comes a more realistic, uncolonial, and not misunderstood view of India. We have come a long way from Hobson-Jobson. Until now, some of the most popular Indian-origins words around the globe were actually semantic misrepresentations or misreadings of original terms; they were actually new words that had been built on the original and somehow connected to it, but started to indicate something different.

Curry (kari) in Tamil is a plant; its leaves are indeed used as ingredients in cuisine but originally Indians would not really call a gravy a “curry.” Yoga is one of the classical schools of Indian philosophy; physical exercises and postures may be – and were – additional instruments in meditation but in they in no way equal yoga in its entirety. Pandit is a Hindu priest, a Brahmin; the word does not function as just any “expert” in Hindi the way it does in the United States.

Looking at these older loanwords from the perspective of 2017, I would say the Europeans had made a semantic masala out of many Indian words. They had based it on linguistic jugaad — non-academic guesstimates of original terms — reinforced by the colonial and post-colonial dadagiri: a feeling of cultural supremacy that ignored non-European voices.

So now we can nearly decipher the opening sentence of this text:

So you see, chacha, that bada chaudhuri has tried his dadagiri on me but I saw through his natak and now he is being a chamcha instead.

“So you see, uncle, that big headman had tried his bullying on me but I saw through his drama and now he is being a sycophant instead.” Fortunately, I also have the dictionary to interpret the sycophant’s further attempts.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief