Friday, 3 October 2008

De Factoid the Eighth: Hindi an’ a Jones...


In De Factoid the Seventh, one mentioned in passing the origins of the ‘vindaloo’ curry in name, if not in location. The vindaloo is one of many examples of food birthed as a product of empire: a child of conquest and (if you will) a happy mixed marriage. But the British love affair with the curry is not a new one, and the courtship is mapped across several continents.

‘Curry’, as a word comes (as one would reasonably expect) from India – from the Tamil word kari and/or the Canarese word karil, from the southern districts of the country/ Sri Lanka (which may both be linked to the name of the traditional Indian cooking pot, the karahi – also spelt karai – in which the dish was made) and crops up in Europe and England with thanks to traders as early as the 17th century (though we know from De Factoid the Third that trade had been going on much earlier, when the chilli-pepper – amongst other less spicy things like Christianity – was introduced to India from South-America by Spanish and Portuguese traders a hundred years or so earlier). Dutch and Portuguese explorers wrote favourably of ‘carriel’ (from the Portuguese corruption of the Canarese word meaning ‘curry’), suggesting that Europeans were naturally inclined toward the spicy dish. Europe did already have a special idea of ‘spice’, with the word finding its origins in Latin, speciēs (initially in the sense of ‘visible appearance’, ‘specific kind’ from whence we get words like spectacles, special, specialist, specific and species) and the related late-Greek word eîdos, ‘merchandise’, ‘wares’: the singular of which idéā also meant ‘look’, ‘form’ or ‘kind’ (and entered Latin as idea: giving us the words idea, ideology, ideal), which later also comes to mean ‘goods’ and more specifically ‘groceries’ as is apparent in modern French for ‘grocer’ (when pronouncing the ‘c’ with an ‘s’ sound): épicier. ‘Grocer’ and ‘spicer’ are fundamentally the same word and both link back to the idea of trade, and buying up what one sees. Grocer as a word comes from the medieval Latin grossarius/ grossus (from where get gross and GDP – ‘gross domestic product’ i.e. the value of all goods and services produced in a country in one year). The grocer wasn’t just a man selling veggies, he was selling (and buying) everything in gross quantities: he was the medieval equivalent of the wholesaler. The Worshipful Company of Grocers (established 1180AD) is listed second in the Livery Companies (i.e. medieval trade-regulators) of the City of London, who traded in spices, gold, and other luxury goods from Byzantium (modern day Istanbul) and the Mediterranean. Also called the Guild of Pepperers through their very profitable trade in peppercorns, which was (until the introduction of the chilli) the primary method of spicing food (and hence why we call the latter and its less-spicy relations chilli peppers, despite being completely unrelated to the genus that yields Piper nigrum, ‘black pepper’). That Latin word, piper (from Sanskrit, pippali - the 'long pepper') spawned similar words across the continent with Old English, piper; German, pfeffar; Italin, pepe and Old French, peivre (modern French, poivre) and proved such good business generally that pepper corns were often used as payment of rental agreements (from where we get the legal phrase ‘peppercorn rent’: though now in relation to a small payment based on size, rather than worth), and to well-seasoned soldiers (who could also have their salary in salt – as discussed in De Factoid the Second). Perhaps it gave them some pep on the battlefield (a shortened Americanism of ‘pepper’ in the sense of ‘spicing things up’) or in the after-life if things didn't go to plan (black peppercorns were found lodged in the nostrils of the Egyptian King, Ramesses II: part of the mummification process performed shortly after his death in 1213 B.C. – i.e. 'Before Christ'). The majority of peppercorns in Europe came, by land, from India until sea-routes were established by the early trading empires of Portugal and the Netherlands. Trying to open up a sea-route westward to the country, Christopher Columbus unwittingly discovered the east coast of what is now the United States. Believing to have landed at his appropriate destination, he called the natives ‘Indians’. Chilli, as a word, comes from the Aztec name for the plant (of the same spelling), and gets imported into Spanish during their trade with (and later conquest of) South America. A similar process occurs with the later British East India Company: a shift from couriers (in the sense of ‘a servant/running messenger’ from Latin currere, ‘run’: hence the ‘current’ of a river) of Indian goods to conquerors and grocers by force – with the curry being but one of the things brought back home.

The other meaning of ‘curry’ i.e. ‘to rub down with a comb’, ‘arrange’, ‘equip’ comes from the Old French verb conraier – ‘to prepare’, ‘to put in order’. To ‘curry a horse’ (a phrase which today usually only turns up in horror stories about back-door eateries in The Sun) carries (another word also coming from the French) the meaning – now usually only inside the horsey-set – of the rubbing down and dressing of horses: hence curry-combing. This is linked (by a slightly odd-route) to the phrase, to curry favour.

The phrase does not mean ‘to arrange favour’ as one might expect and is actually the result of mishearing the French medieval phrase ‘curryfavell’ (translating roughly as a ‘flatterer’) from the story Roman de Fauvel or ‘The Romance of Fauvel’. In the story, Fauvel is a donkey who deceives and corrupts the greedy leaders of the church and state and, as with the curry-combing of a horse, so too is Fauvel the donkey ‘curried’ as the rich and powerful humiliate themselves. The name Fauvel (or Favvel) is formed from ‘fau-vel’ (in English ‘veiled lie’), which in turn is made (in a very clever fashion) from the initial letters of a French version of the seven deadly sins: flaterie (flattery/pride), avarice (greed/gluttony), vilanie (wrath), variété (inconstancy), envie (envy), and lacheté (cowardice). The method is called an acrostic (from the Greek meaning ‘row or line of verse’) and is from where we get the word across.

When curry itself was brought back across the waters to England it yielded some interesting results. The once popular breakfast dish kedgeree (consisting of flaked smoked-haddock, boiled rice, eggs and butter) is as much an Englishman’s botched attempt at a curry as any: deriving from an Indian dish called khichdi in Hindi – once popular with the Mughals (whom the British deposed from the Indian seats of power, if not a seat at breakfast). Curry has had other royal connections – one was served at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (Coronation Chicken), which in turn was based on ‘Jubilee Chicken’: the dish of cold chicken, mayonnaise and curry powder created for the silver jubilee of King George V in 1935. The preserve ‘piccalilli’ seems to be another fair attempt at an English curry sauce and ‘devilled’ (i.e. spiced) eggs, kidneys etc. are another product of the influence of Indian food (and a fair indication of the Victorian temperament toward the ‘heathen’ – i.e. non-Christian – country). Heathen, interestingly, contains the word ‘heath’ (as in a hill) and refers to the barbarian practice of performing their rituals on hills outside the city proper (though it’s now tourists, not pagans, that gather at Heathrow). You may well encounter several other Indian words on your way to Heathrow airport so long, that is, as you’ve remembered to pack your shampoo, pyjamas and bangles; a cummerbund (a posh girdle-type belt for men); a pair of jodhpurs (riding trousers) for playing polo; a bandanna; a cot for the little one; your cashmere wooly jumper and any other general loot. And that’s just a few words from Hindi! Other Hindi words might crop-up if all is pukka (meaning ‘cooked’, ‘ripe’ and used in Southern England in a positive sense of ‘well’: think Jamie Oliver) or if you travel to a jungle, stay in a bungalow, or cross a border guarded by a sentry. You can thank the Urdu language if you get yourself a cushy job (from khushi, ‘soft’); if you act like a thug (from the Thagi: a collective of criminals who were fabled to have dressed as wandering priests and murder travellers) you may fall from favour you may be labelled a pariah (from Persian through the Tamil language). To name but a few! It is apparent that things to eat weren’t the only exports from India back to Blighty.

Blighty as a word comes (though the Army) from the Hindi, bilāyatī/ vilāyatī meaning ‘foreigner’. A similar naming trend occurred much earlier in the history of English when the Saxon tribes landed on the English east coast. The word for ‘foreigner’ in Anglo-Saxon is wealh and was used generally to refer to any native inhabitant (the Celtic Britons) who needed to be hacked through to make some living room. The largest concentration of these foreigners was named appropriately with the plural of the Anglo-Saxon wealh word – wealas: modern-day Wales (as well as the elements of Cornwall, and the wal- of the walnut, ‘foreign nut’). Welsh is an older language than English, as are Scots/Irish Gaelic, Cornish, Manx and Breton (in northern France): all the residues of Celtic languages pushed back to the north, south and west coasts by the invading Saxons. Another Indian word for ‘foreigner’ (ferengi) turns up more readily in Star Trek.

Trek is one of a few Afrikaans (South-African Dutch-English) words to work its way into mainstream English. Others that spring to mind are kommando (independence soldiers who fought against the British and from whence we get commando) and the quite-loaded word apartheid (literally ‘apart-ness’). Animal names such as meerkat (literally ‘lake cat’), springbok (a small deer/ tasty cocktail shooter); wildebeest (from Cape-Dutch: an Afrikaans forerunner) and aardvark (‘ant-eater’ to any Americans reading) are Dutch-English South-African imports to the language. The drink advocaat is another Anglo-Dutch word, originating with Dutch speakers in South-America and translating roughly as ‘egg-nog’. One says ‘roughly’ as egg-nog is not a direct translation, as advocaat was originally made, not with eggs, but with avocadoes (hence the name): only being replaced with eggs when avocadoes were discovered to be few in number back in the Netherlands. ‘Nog’ may well come from the name for the English wooden cup used for drinking the concoction (and used later to refer to ‘wooden’ heads), called a noggin. Other names for the English focus more on appearance and appetite. An Englishman in Australia might be called a Pomm or a Pohm, though which one is tricky to determine. The Englishman-as-Pomm may refer either to pomegranate (the red fruit) rhyming through Aussie-accent with immigrant or (which is more likely/amusing) refer to the colour into which the average Englishman turns in the sun (and lines up nicely with our Afrikaans nickname, rooinek – ‘red neck’). Pohm is more likely still as an acronym for (i.e. initials of) Property Of Her Majesty – reflecting that fact that Aussie, for all its charm now, used to be a British prison. Another food related name is found in limey: referring to Royal/ Merchant Navy sailors eating limes to ward off the vitamin deficiency scurvy (think stereotypical pirate “ye scurvy dog!”) and the title awarded to us by the French for our meat-eating tendencies: rosbif (‘roast-beef’) – which we return to the frogs, in kind.

De Factoid the Ninth: coming soon.

8 comments:

Argentum Vulgaris said...

As fascinating and informative as one has come to expect. I was getting a little worried about the space between postings, but you explained that on Tomus.

AV

Adam James Nall said...

I've been on holiday this past week and I couldn't pack my books (though drafted most of it in my head for the writing today). Thought I'd make up for my abscence with a longer post.

Back to business as usual!

Best,

AJN

Steve said...

How facinating to find such history in our pantries and cupboards.

PS..Thanks for your visit to Younger vs Older

Adam James Nall said...

Thank you, Steve. It was my pleasure.

AJN

Argentum Vulgaris said...

As an aside and purely from academic interest:
http://www.laughandlift.com/toplaugh2.html

AV

Adam James Nall said...

Marvellous. Thanks, AV. I've heard other good ones recently including, to my great enjoyment,

'glibido': 'all talk and no action'.

Best,

AJN

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