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Gutta-percha, Ketchup, Sago

As we know, English is a mongrel language which incorporates words from something like five hundred other tongues as the result of exploration, trade and conquest. A good example is the small but significant group of well-known words which come to us from Malay.

From late medieval times on, a Malay pidgin called Bazaar Malay (melayu pasar, “market Malay”) became a lingua franca, the common trading language of a large part of the East Indies. Its dominance arose through the port of Malacca (now Melaka) on the south-western coast of Malaya facing Sumatra. In medieval times, Malacca effectively controlled the straits through which the ships trading with places further east had to pass. At one time it was believed to be the largest port in the world.

Traders came to this area for a number of commodities, but principally for spices. This was a hugely profitable trade, to the extent that once spices reached western Europe they almost became a currency in their own right (a peppercorn rent is now notional; in medieval times, a pound of pepper was worth a month’s wages). Linguistically, the ancient importance of such spices as cinnamon, ginger, cloves, pepper and nutmeg is shown by their names in English being as old as the language. For millennia these spices had travelled overland from the East with nobody in the West having any clear idea where they came from. It was only with the growth of seafaring exploration in medieval times that it was realised that they actually came from India and the Far East. There was vast trading advantage to be gained from short-circuiting the slow, traditional overland route with its horde of middlemen along the way, each taking a cut and pushing up the price, and trading instead directly with the source (this, remember, was Columbus’s rationale for travelling westwards, hoping to find an even shorter way to the treasures of the Orient that would not mean travelling round the Cape of Good Hope).

So successive waves of Western traders bribed, negotiated and fought their way eastwards in search of the source of these riches, displacing the Indians who had been the most important merchants in the region. The first group were the Arabs, who brought Islam to Malacca and other parts of the area in the fifteenth century. In 1511 a Portuguese fleet led by Afonso de Albuquerque captured Malacca. The Dutch seized the port in 1641. The British came only in the late eighteenth century, through the British East India Company, taking over a group of ports including Penang and Singapore that were later to be called the Straits Settlements. After the Napoleonic Wars, this included Malacca. So it is not surprising that many of our words from Malay reached English through Portuguese and Dutch.

Merchants formed permanent trading stations, calling them kampong after the native word for “enclosure”; this turned into compound (nothing to do with the chemical sense of the word, which comes from Latin). Stockades around the compounds were usually of bamboo, a fast-growing tough local plant. This word was originally bambu in Malay, became mambu in Portuguese and bamboes in Dutch; nobody seems to know why the final “s” appeared, but when it became an English word the “s” was taken to be a plural and we ended up with a form very close to the original Malay. A godown is a warehouse or store for goods, from the Malay gadong.

The local people were often far from friendly, as the Malay term amuk testifies, spelt amok or amuck in English. The OED quotes Marsden’s Malay Dictionary as its definition: “engaging furiously in battle, attacking with desperate resolution, rushing in a state of frenzy to the commission of indiscriminate murder”. Another pointer is the set of names for local weapons which have found their way into the language: kris, a dagger with a wavy blade; parang, a kind of heavy sheath knife, and sjambok, deriving from the Malay samboq, a kind of heavy whip, now thought of as typically South African, but taken there by traders from the East Indies.

Unsurprisingly, a set of Malay words naming natural products of the East Indies have also come into the language (but not, as I say, those of the spices, whose names long predate direct trade with the area). The cloth known as gingham came from Malay ginggang, originally an adjective meaning “striped”. The material kapok, the soft fibrous covering of the seeds of a tropical tree, is familiar as a lining and stuffing material. The sarong is the national garment of Malayia, though not restricted to that area. The technique of dying cloth called batik is actually Javanese in origin, the word meaning “painted”. We also owe a small selection of words for native wildlife to the language: the cassowary, a large flightless bird related to the emu, was called kasuari in Malay. The cockatoo and gecko also originate here, as does the orang-utan, the great ape called “man of the woods” in Malay. We also have gutta-percha, sago, rattan, and ketchup. This last word may come to us from a dialect of Chinese, but the English word is certainly derived from the Malay kechap, meaning “fish or shell-fish pickled in brine”. The traditional method of rice-growing in the east, in paddy fields, comes from the Malay word for harvested rice still attached to its stem, padi.

A number of words that we normally associate with China have actually come to us from Malay. Our word for a particularly Eastern kind of flat-bottomed sailing vessel called a junk, for example, actually seems to come from the Malay word adjong, no doubt picked up in Malacca. Our name for a particular grade of Chinese official, mandarin, seems to have been derived from the Malay mantri via the Portuguese. The musical instrument the gong is also Malay. Perhaps the most surprising is the container in which we traditionally keep our supply of tea, the caddy; this derives from the Malay kati, a unit of weight of about 1.3 pounds (600-odd grams), which was divided into 16 taels and which turns up all over the Far East. Even more surprisingly, our word tea, though originally Chinese, seems to have been brought to Europe by the Portuguese, based on a Malay variant of the Chinese word.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 19 Oct. 1996

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 19 October 1996.