Etymology of Selected Words of Indian Language Origin


"We have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother-tongue. We must teach them some foreign language…"

"It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England."
So stated Thomas Babington Macualay, about the vernacular and the literary languages of India, in his Minute on Indian Education that he submitted to the parliament in 1835. Hence it is ironical that many Indian words, mainly from Sanskrit and Persian, were absorbed into the English language during the British colonial rule in India, known as the British Raj.

Some of these words are easily recognizable as Indian words. There are others, though a part of modern day spoken English, which are seldom recognized as being of Indian origin. Most of these words were assimilated during the period of 16th to 20th century, when the British were following an aggressive imperial policy abroad, especially the Indian subcontinent. India, was what made the English empire great and mighty, and was appropriately called 'the jewel of the imperial crown'.
However the British were not the only European nation, interested in India as a colony; but French, Portuguese and even Spanish, wanted to establish this country - rich in resources and manpower- as one of their own colonies. Consequently there are some words that have come to English from French and Portuguese, which in turn had been absorbed to those languages by a native Indian language.

It is often discussed the intellectual benefits - among many others - the British colonizer imparted to the Indian natives, but seldom is talked about the benefits reaped by the colonizer from a language & "a literature (Arabic, Sanskrit and other literary languages) admitted to be of small intrinsic value."

Following is a short essay tracing the roots of many Indian languages, and how a sizeable number of words were assimilated to the English language, during this particular period.


India is the cradle to one of the first civilizations of the world, founded in the banks of the Lower Indus River in Southern India. This culture flourished from 2500 BC, and was named Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, by contemporary archeologists, after the two main cities found in the excavation sites. There were many languages spoken by these inhabitants during this time, and these are collectively known as Dravidian or Dravidian family of languages.

Though scholars disagree, as to the exact date when Northern India was inhabited, most agree that it maybe a century earlier or later. The inhabitants of this civilization were called the Aryans, since they migrated from the European mainland, from the Caucasian mountainside. They spoke a variety of languages descending from the Indo-European family of languages.

The geographical barriers of rivers, mountains, deserts and forests made it difficult for these languages to mingle, and hence even today, as one country, the languages and dialects spoken in India are very different from each other - either in written script, spoken words, grammar or tones. Further, the many religions, Gods and deities, caste systems and other social and economical factors; have made it possible to nurture many different languages and dialects, within one country.

When considering the two important language families of Dravidian and Indo-Aryan, the first languages that burgeoned from them, are dead today, except in literary composition or liturgy. The languages that stem from the Dravidian family, which are still in use are - Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and Telegu. These languages are mostly spoken in the South Indian states of Tamilnadu, Karnataka and Kerala.

The languages spoken in Northern India, flourished from the Indo-Aryan Sanskritic group of the Indo-Iranian branch, which belongs to the larger Indo-European family. Sanskritic, is a completely dead language today, but Sanskrit and Pali, which are the two languages surviving from ancient times, are important even today: Sanskrit is the classical language of India and Hinduism, in which most scriptures (Veda Grantha), epics (Mahabharata, Bhagavat Gita) and ancient literature is written. Pali is used as the liturgical and scholarly language of Theravada Buddhism, as Buddhism first originated in Bihar, India. Most modern languages in North India stems from these two languages, such as Hindi, Urdu, Punajabi, Gujarati, Bengali, Marathi, Kashmir, Sindhi, Konkani, Rajasthani, Assamese and Oriya.

In addition to these languages from Dravidian and Indo-European families, there are nearly hundred or more dialects, some containing a mixture of both language families. Hence India today, has fifteen official languages. All currency notes, and ninety per cent of government documents bear the scripts of these fifteen languages.

With a culture and heritage as variegated and rich as India is, it is not surprising that the English language absorbed as many as five hundred words during this time, and continue to do so even today. The Oxford English Dictionary currently has 700 words of Indian origin.

Of the words that came into English, there are certain characteristics that are easily recognizable. The first of which that, most words did not have equivalents in English, such as yoga, swastika, khaki, sari, and sati. Some of the words were taken and given a different meaning, as nirvana, kedgeree, Jodhpur. However words were rarely substituted to English words, as it happened during Old English and Middle English periods, with Latin and French words. Rather the words that were borrowed which already had meanings were used to adorn a text or speech since it sounded different and fashionable. Ex: pariah, pundit, purdah.

The pronunciation too, took a different tone, in these Indian borrowings. The important modifications were mainly seen in the sounds of 't' and 'd'. In the North Indian languages 't' is mostly pronounced as 'th', as in thing; while the 'd' is pronounced as 'th' in this. When a word from this region came to English, the sound came with a hard 't' and 'd' as in dungaree (Hindi) and swastika (Sanskrit). The words that came from South Indian languages meanwhile took the exact opposite course, with 't' and 'd', being pronounced softly or not at all: as in cheroot (Tamil churuttu/shuruttu). This maybe because South Indian languages tend to stress the sounds 't' and 'd' more, which Europeans may have considered to be disagreeable to their ear.

Further there are some words which today, we hardly consider as being of Indian origin, such as ginger. This word, although coming to English today as a Latin borrowing, actually has its origin in Dravidian. Some words that have come to English from French or Portuguese have their first roots in an Indian language, such as palanquin & indigo.


Some Indian borrowings are listed below:

Philosophical and Learned Terms

Aryan - A member of the people who spoke the parent language of the Indo-European languages. In Nazism, a Caucasian Gentile, especially Nordic type.
Of or relating to Indo-Iranian languages.
Sanskrit arya - noble

chakra - One of the seven centers of spiritual energy in the human body according to yoga philosophy.
Sanskrit chakram - wheel, circle

dharma - A Buddhist principle and ultimate truth. Social custom and right behavior. Hindu moral law.
Hindi dharma, from Sanskrit

Guru - A teacher and a guide in spiritual and philosophical matters. A mentor. A recognized leader in a field. "Fitness Guru"
Hindi/Punjab - guru (teacher), from Sanskrit guruh -weighty, heavy, grave

Juggernaut - Something, such as a belief or an institution, that elicits blind and destructive devotion or to which people are ruthlessly sacrificed.
An overwhelming, advancing force that crushes or seem to crush everything in its path.
The name of the Hindu deity Krishna - Juggernath
Hindi Jaganath - Lord Krishna, from Sanskrit jaganatha : jagath -moving/the world + nathah - Lord/God

Mandala - Any of various ritualistic geometric designs symbolic of the universe, used in Hinduism and Buddhism, as an aid to meditation.
Tamil mutalai - ball, from Sanskrit mandalam - circle

Nirvana - In Buddhism, the ineffable ultimate in which one has attained disinterested wisdom and compassion. A transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire now sense of self, and the subject is released from the effects of karma. It represents the final goal in Buddhism.
A state of perfect happiness.
From Sanskrit nirvana, nirva -be extinguished + nis -out + va - to blow

Pariah - A social outcast. An Untouchable.
Tamil pariah - caste name which means 'hereditary drummer'. The caste system in India placed pariahs or untouchables very low in society. First recorded in English in 1613.

Pundit - A learned person. A source of opinion. A critic. "a political pundit"
Hindi pandit - a learned man, from Sanskrit panditah - learned scholar, perhaps from Dravidian origin.
Purdah - A curtain or screen, used mainly in India to keep women separated from men or strangers. The Hindu or Muslim system of sex segregation, practiced especially by women in seclusion.
Social seclusion: 'artists living in luxurious purdah'
Urdu/Persian paradah - veil, curtain. pan-around, over + da- to place

Sati (suttee) - the former Hindu practice of a widow immolating herself on her husbands funeral pyre.
Hindi sati, from Sanskrit meaning 'faithful wife'
This practice was banned in India in the early 20th century, when the British ruled over India. However it continues even today, in under developed states and rural villages, such as Bihar (a state in North India)

Sutra - a rule or aphorism in Sanskrit literature or a set of these grammar or Hindu law or philosophy.
In Buddhism - A scriptural narrative, especially a text traditionally regarded as a discourse of the Buddha.
Sanskrit - sutram, tread, string

Kamasutra - A Sanskrit treatise setting forth rules for sexual, sensuous and sensual love, and marriage: in accordance with Hindu law, made popular today by Western marital therapists and psychologists.
Sanskrit - Kamasutram: kamah - love, sutram - thread, string, manual

Swastika - The emblem of the Nazi Germany, officially adopted in 1935. In Buddhism and Hinduism, a religious symbol representing noble qualities and good luck.
An ancient cosmic symbol formed by a Greek cross with ends of the arms bent at right angles either clockwise or a counterclockwise direction.
Sanskrit svastika - sign of good luck: Svast - well being

Yoga - A Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline, a part of which includes breath control, simple meditation and the adoption of specific body postures widely practiced for relaxation.
Sanskrit, literally meaning 'union', referring to the union of the mind, body and spirit.

Clothes, Clothing and Fashion

Bandana (bandanna) - A large handkerchief usually figured and brightly colored.
Portuguese from, Hindi bandhunu (tie dyeing) and bandhana (to tie): from Sanskrit bhandhana tying.
This word was probably absorbed to Portuguese, when the Portuguese ruled over Goa, Bombay during the early part of the 17th century, and from Portuguese was absorbed to English.

Bindi - A dot marked on the forehead, by Hindu wives, and sometimes men, to adorn or as a sign of the third eye - wisdom or God Shiva.
From Hindi bindi. Made famous in the West by pop music singers.

Bangle - A rigid bracelet or anklet, especially one with no clasp. An ornament that hangs from a bracelet or necklace.
Hindi bungri - glass

Cashmere - Fine downy wool growing in the outer hair of the cashmere goat. A soft fabric made out of this wool or similar fibres. Named after the state of Kashmir in India, where these goats were found in abundance, and famous for woolen clothing during the British Raj.

Chintz - A printed and glazed cotton fabric, usually of bright colors.
Cotton cloth, especially plain white or unbleached.
Hindi chint, from Sanskrit citra - shiny, variegated

Cummerbund - A broad sash, especially one that is pleated lengthwise & worn as an article of formal dress, as with dinner jacket.
Hindi & Urdu - kamarband, from Persian kamar- waist + bandi- band
The sash was formally worn in the Indian subcontinent by domestic workers and low status office workers.

Dhoti - A loincloth worn by Hindu men in India. The cotton fabric used for such loincloths.
From Hindi dhoti

Dungaree - A sturdy, often blue, denim fabric. Trousers or overalls made of sturdy denim fabric.
Hindi dumgri - hard/coarse.

Gunny - A coarse, heavy fabric made of jute or hemp, used especially for bags or sacks.
Hindi ghoni - sack, from Sanskrit gharati-sack

Jute - Either of 2 plants yielding a fiber used for sacking and cordage.
Bengali jhuto, from Sanskrit jutah - twisted hair, probably of Dravidian origin.

Jodhpurs - Long riding breeches, tight from the knee to ankle, named after the ancient city, Jodhpur in the state of Rajasthan in North India. Men in this state wear trousers akin to riding breeches, hence the name 'jodhpurs'.

Khaki - A light olive brown to moderate or light yellowish brown. A sturdy cloth of this color. Khakis - trousers made from this cloth.
Urdu khaki - dusty or dust colored, from Persian khak - dust

Musk- A strong smelling reddish brown substance which is secreted by the male musk-deer for scent making, which is also an important ingredient in perfumery.
From Late Latin miscus, from Persian musk, from Sanskrit muska (scrotum)

Pajamas/pyjama - A lose fitting garment consisting of trousers and a jacket, worn for sleeping or lounging, often used in plural.
Hindi paijama - loose fitting trousers, from Persian pai- leg + jamah - garment

Sari - A garment consisting of a length of cotton or silk elaborately run around the body, worn by women in the Indian subcontinent. It has 6 yards of material, with 1.5 yards hanging from one shoulder down to the ground, intricately woven with bright or contrasting colors.
From Hindi sari

Shampoo - A liquid preparation containing soap for washing hair.
Hindi campoo - press.

Words related to Food

Curry - A heavily spiced sauce or relish made with curry powder and eaten with rice, meat, fish or other food.
A dish seasoned with curry powder - a mixture of various spices.
Tamil - kari

Ginger - Mid E gingiveri from Old E gingifer, from Old French gingivre, from Med Latin-gingiber, from Latin zungiberi, from Greek - zingiberis from Pali singieram, from Dravidian (similar to Tamil) inciver, inci - ginger + ver- root.

Ghee - A clarified, semi-fluid butter used especially in Indian cooking
Hindi ghi, from Sanskrit gharati - sprinkles.

Kebab - Dish of small pieces of meat and/or vegetables, cooked on skewers
Urdu/Persian kabab - roasted meat.

Kedgeree - A dish of rice, fish, hard-boiled eggs, often served for breakfast. In North India kedgeree refers to a mixture of rice cooked with butter and dhal, with spices and shredded onions.
Hindi kedegree - butter rice

Mango - A fleshy yellowish-red tropical fruit, which is eaten ripe or used green for pickels. From Portuguese manga, from Malay manga, from Tamil manaky which means mango tree fruit.

Animal Names

Mongoose - Any of various Old World carnivorous mammals having agile body and a long tail and noted for the ability to seize and kill venomous snakes.
Marathi mangus, of Dravidian origin.

Anaconda - A large non-venomous arboreal snake of tropical South America that kills its prey by suffocating in its coils.
Alteration of Sinhalese henakandaya - whip snake.

Cheetah - A long-legged, swift running wild cat of Africa and Southwest Asia, having black-spotted, tawny fur and non-retractile claws.
The fastest animal on land can run for short distances at about 96kn (60 miles) per hour.
Hindi cita, from Sanskrit citrakaya - tiger/leopard: Citra- variegated + kaya - body


Bungalow - A small house or cottage usually having a single story and sometimes as additional attic story. A thatched or tiled one-story house in India surrounded by a wide veranda.
Hindi bangala, Bengali bungalow, Gujarati bangalo

Bazaar - A market consisting of a street lined with shops and stalls especially one in the Middle East. A fair or sale at which miscellaneous articles are sold, often for charitable purposes.
Italian bazaro, and Urdu bazaar, both from Persian.

Catamaran - A boat with two parallel hulls or floats, especially a light sailboat with a mast mounted on a transverse frame joining the hulls: A raft of logs or floats lashed together and propelled by a paddles or sails.
Tamil kattumaram: kattu- to tie + maram- wood flog: tied wood

Cheroot (sheroot) - A cigar with square cut ends
French cheroute, from Tamil curuttu/churuttu/shuruttu - roll of tobacco
This word would have been absorbed into the French language during the early 16th century, when French were trying to get a foot hold in South India (Hyderabad), and from French would have come into English.

Coir - Fiber from the outer husk of the coconut, used in potting compost and for making ropes and matting.
Origin from Malayalam kayaru - cord

Coolie - (coolly) Offensive. An unskilled Asian laborer
Hindi and Telegu: kuli - day laborer, perhaps from kuli - a tribe in Gujarat or Urdu kuli - slave
A person from the Indian subcontinent: a person of Indian descent (Offensive)

Dinghy - A small open boat carried as a tender, lifeboat, or pleasure craft on a larger boat" A small rowboat. An inflatable rubber life raft.
Hindi - dimgi, variant of demgi - float, raft
The 'gh' in English serves to indicate the hard 'g'

Gymkhana - Any of various meets at which contests are held to test the skill of the competitors, as in equestrian ship, gymnastics or sports car racing.
Probably alteration (influenced by gymnastics) fromHindi gend-khana - race court:
gend- ball + khana - house

Indigo - A tropical plant of the pea family, which was formerly widely cultivated as a source of dark blue dye.
The dark blue dye obtained from this plant
A color between blue and violet in the spectrum
From Portuguese indigo, via Latin, from Greek Indikon, from India, the River Iindus

Loot (n) - Valuables pillaged in time of war: spoils
Stolen goods: Goods illicitly obtained as by bribery.
Loot (v) To pillage, spoil
Hindi lut, from Sanskrit loptrum/lotrum - plunder

Palanquin (palankeen) - A covered litter carried on poles on the shoulders of two or four men, formerly used in Eastern Asia.
Portuguese - palanquim, from Javanese pelangki, from Pali pallanko, from Sanskrit paryankah - couch, bed

Polo - A game resembling hockey, played on horse back with a long handled clubs and a wooden ball. An ancient game of the East still played in upper Indus valley (extreme West of the Himalayas). Introduced first at Calcutta and a little later in Punjab and played first in England in 1871.
From Balti language (a Tibeto- Burman language) meaning ball

Teak - hard durable timbre used in shipbuilding and for making furniture. The large deciduous tree native to India and South East Asia, which yields this timber.
From Portuguese teca, from Tamil Tamil/Malayalam tekka


1. Can you find at least another five English words that have come from an Indian language?

2. List reasons why these Indian words were borrowed. Can you categorize these words in a coherent order?

3. Read T B Macualy's Minute on Indian Education and try to list the reasons why the British parliament chose his English education proposal, as opposed to the Oriental language proposal.

4. List some English words that have come to the English language within the past decade.


1. The New Oxford Dictionary of English Claredon Press, Oxford 1998

2. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition Hougton Mifflin Co., Boston 2000

3. Encarta World English Dictionary St. Martin's Press, New York 1999
4. Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary 10th Edition Oxford Claredon Press, Oxford 1984

5. Dravidian Etymological Dictionary 2nd Edition Oxford Claredon Press, Oxford 1984

6. FAIES Indo-European Studies Bulletin Volume 9, No:1 March/April 2000

7. A comparative study of the Dravidian and South Indian Family of Languages by Caldwell Robert. New Delhi, Asian Education Services 1987

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