Because we feel the need to post some more language-related stuff.  Until recently, we thought that there were few words borrowed into English from Malay or Indonesian–or any regional Indonesian language for that matter.  We could only think of a couple.  But my associate here (JM) had a bright idea regarding the origins of the word "compound", and that got us thinking.  With the help of the Oxford English Dictionary and Google, we have discovered that there are actually quite a few loanwords from Malay and Indonesian into English.  Some of these words are quite rare, but others are very common, quintessentially English words.

A first group of words includes words for things that English, Dutch, and Portuguese traders had never seen before.  These are mostly local flora and fauna where the colonialists just borrowed the word wholesale.  The best example is cockatoo, but other ones include cassowary (a bird), durian and rambutan (fruits), dugong, sarong, and orangutan.  Orangutan comes from the words orang hutan, which translates as "jungle people."

Then there are words that are a little less obvious.  The word paddy, as in rice paddy, comes from the Malay word for rice growing in the field, padi.  Gecko is a straight borrowing of the Javanese word gekok.  Gong comes from the Malay word gong, and bamboo comes from the Malay word bambu.  We had earlier thought that these last two were Chinese words borrowed into Malay/Indonesian as well as English, but it turns out it’s the other way around.  Mandarin is similar.  The word comes from mentri, which is the Malay word for a government minister.  The Malay word was borrowed originally from Sanskrit, and its m-n-r root is probably the same Indo-European root as that of the English word minister (this is TP speculation, not confirmed by OED).  Anyway, mentri was borrowed by the Portuguese as mandarim and passed on to the English as mandarin, then applied to East Asian civil servants, and later to the Chinese language spoken by government officials in Beijing.  This explains why the Chinese term for Mandarin Chinese has nothing to do with the word mandarin.

The next group includes words that seem totally English.  Launch, as in a quick boat, comes from the Malay word lancar, meaning smooth or nimble.  It was borrowed first through Portuguese but made its way into English.  Compound, in the sense of an enclosed living space, actually comes from the Malay word kampong, meaning village.  Credit JM for hypothesizing this, and the OED for confirming it.  The word gingham (a checkered pattern) comes from ginggang, a word describing a similar pattern in Malay.  Amok was borrowed straight from the Malay word amok.  To "run amok" in Malay is mengamok.  Even cooties (yes, cooties) comes from the Malay word kutu, which means louse.

Finally, there are two huge loanwords from Malay that originated in Chinese.  Ever wonder why the Chinese word for tea is cha, but we say tea?  That’s because we didn’t borrow our word from Chinese, we borrowed it from Malay, where the word is teh.  Then there’s our favorite.  When the Brits and Dutch arrived in Malacca and Batavia, they found Chinese groups eating a particular kind of fish sauce.  Their local Malay and Indonesian neighbors had borrowed that word for fish sauce, and applied it to any type of soy-based sauce.  The Brits, in turn, took that word and brought it back to Britain, where its meaning gradually evolved to signify any salty and sweet sauce served with meat.  Later, in Britain and US, its meaning has become associated with a particular kind of salty and sweet sauce with a heavy tomato component.  That old Malay word is kicap/kecap, from which we get the word for that classic American french fry accompaniment, ketchup.

Comments 8

  1. Josh April 18, 2005

    “The Malay word was borrowed originally from Sanskrit, and its m-n-r root is probably the same Indo-European root as that of the English word minister (this is TP speculation, not confirmed by OED).”
    Since “minister” comes to English through French from a Latin word for “slave,” I doubt there’s an IE connection there.

  2. Josh April 18, 2005

    Ah, I just looked it up: “See mei-2 in Indo-European Roots”
    Interesting stuff though.

  3. Tom April 19, 2005

    “Since “minister” comes to English through French from a Latin word for “slave,”…”
    Now I’m positive that I’m right.
    You have to look past the Latin word for slave to that word’s own IE root. I’d bet you five dollars that the meaning of the root has something to do with “serve.” Which would match very nicely with the Hindi word “mantri,” meaning “minister of state,” or one who serves the government. Which evolved from Sanskrit just like the Malay “mentri.”
    In all cases, the word originally meant some kind of servant, and evolved to mean specifically a public servant. So “slave” makes perfect sense.

  4. fazu April 19, 2005

    Good work! I’ve heard about “compound” and “mandarin” before and always had suspicions about “ketchup” and “tea”; but never got round to verify them. Excellent!

  5. Sandy April 19, 2005

    Why don’t we ask the arbiter of all things anciently linguistic: Mr. Overby?

  6. Eugene February 10, 2006

    For your info, the Malay word for tea (ie teh) was taken from a Chinese dialect known as Hokkien (spoken people from Fukien region, who are economic migrants during the 1880s/90s). The hokkien pronounced `tehh’ …and I suspect the English pick that up from chinese in Hongkong during those period probably earlier than the Malay.

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