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Interesting Etymologies 38 : Non - PIE

Updated: Jan 19, 2022

"Hello again Word Lovers!" Once again, we are going to trace words back to their origins. Normally we would go from English to Germanic, Latin, Greek, Persian and eventually to Sanskrit or Proto Indo European (PIE), in this episode we are going to look for some words in English that have a non-PIE root. A first part of this investigation is to consider how many languages there are as an alternative to PIE

The Proto language field is divided into the following identified categories....













One of those Proto alternatives that does touch on English as it fed into PIE is Proto-Dravidian.

Some possible Dravidian roots can be considered:

Chord - It has been argued we get the word Chord for a rope. Coir was the fibre from a coconut husk. Possibly traced back to Malayalam - Kayar or Tamil - Kayiru.

Coolie - To mean a forced labourer or slave possibly comes from the Tamil word cooli for work or labour. Another possibility is Ko a Gujarati word.

Cot - A small bed, could come via Hindi - khāṭ (bedstead or hammock) from Sanskrit.

Curry - Tamil - kaṟi which means sauce or relish for rice using the leaves of the curry tree (Murraya koenigii). Kari is also used in other Dravidian languages: Malayalam, Kannada and Kodava. It appeared in a mid 17th century Portuguese cookbook prepared by members of the British East India Company and the first appearance in anglicised form (currey) was in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse 1747.

Ginger - This can be traced back through Old English (gingiber) from Late Latin (gingiber), Latin (zingiberi) back to Greek (zingiberis) taken from Prakrit (singabera) and Sanskrit (srngaveram). It is believed to have been taken into Sanskrit from Malayalam: inchi-ver - meaning root spice.

Mung - Mung beans from Sanskrit mudga or a Tamil word mngu - to soak

Hot Toddy - A hot drink before bed from Hindi tari meaning Palm sap.

Candy - crystallised sugar. Sanskrit khaṇḍa - fragment, through Persian qand. Theorised that it has a Dravidian root, Tamil kantu - candy and kattu - to harden or condense.

Mongoose - the animal. It is believed the word comes from Marathi maṅgūs.

Pagoda - Possibly from Tamil pagavadi - a house belonging to a God

Pariah - a social outcast possibly from Tamil paṛaiyar or Malayalam for drummer.

Peacock - in Old English was a Pawa. The route goes back through the Latin pavo (also modern Spanish for Turkey) from Greek taos which is believed to have come from Tamil tokei.

Teak - The tropical hardwood can potentially come from Tamil - Tekku, Malayalam - Tekka or Telugu - Teku

These possible etymologies are interesting, but not certain, but there are some words that have emerged from Dravidian languages that we can be certain of the genesis.


Calico - the material or pattern. Can be used as n adjective or noun

Jackfruit - chakka in Mayalam to jaca in Portuguese and then into English.


It is estimated that there are over a hundred words in English from Tamil, here are a few:

Cash - Money, or "money in the hand" from French caisse - money box from Italian cassa, Latin capsa - box. But this is suspected to be the root of cash box but the meaning for loose change or money in the hand/pocket, it is traced to Tamil kasu. This is believed to be the root of Cash which was the Colonial British word for the Indian Monetary system.

Catamaran - Tamil kaṭṭumaram - tied wood/logs bound together. No doubt on this one!

Cheroot - A filter-less cigarette. Via Portuguese - charuto from Tamil - curuttu/churuttu/shuruttu (சுருட்டு) meaning "roll of tobacco.

Corundum - A gemstone - Tamil kuruntam (குருந்தம்)- ruby or sapphire.

Mulligatawny - A type of broth or soup, particularly popular in Scotland. Tamil miḷaku-taṇṇi - meaning Pepper Water. This is truly an example of Anglo-Indian cuisine and the term covers a wide number of recipes. It is an excellent cold weather soup.

Patchouli - The perfume made from a plant in the mint family, native to the Madras region.- pacc̣uli .- meaning green leaf.


Bandicoot - A type of large rat - pandikokku, literally ‘pig-rat’.

Bamboo - Possibly a controversial one this. Many sources attribute it to Kannada or Malay not Telugu.

In an attempt to find words from even further afield languages, we look at:


Taboo - to mean something forbidden comes from Tongan tapu or Fijian tabu (prohibited, disallowed). Related to Māori tapu and Hawaiian kapu. The use in English can be dated specifically to Captain James Cook's visit to Tonga in 1777. He wrote the following when discussing their use of the term "taboo" for "any thing that is forbidden to be eaten, or made use of" - "Not one of them would sit down, or eat a bit of any thing. ... On expressing my surprise at this, they were all taboo, as they said; which word has a very comprehensive meaning; but, in general, signifies that a thing is forbidden"

Ukulele - from Hawaiian literally meaning "jumping flea" uku - louse or flea, lele to fly, jump, leap. It was noted in earlier use in English as the Hawaiian word for flea. The word emerged after a Portuguese instrument was introduced to the islands and the word refers to the rapid motion of the fingers while playing it.

Wiki - The adoption of this moniker in global language actually comes from Hawaiian. Wiki wiki means very quick in Hawaiian. The use in the names of websites or digital repositories emerges from the term wikiwikiweb coined by Ward Cunningham in 1995. The story behind the adoption of the word is recorded for posterity.

Cunningham was at the airport on Hawaii and was told he needed to take the wiki wiki bus to another terminal in the complex. He asked what wiki wiki meant and was informed that wiki meant quick and doubling the word made it more emphatic, therefore, very quick. When he came to naming his web platform he wanted to use something distinct and not derivative and the conversation at the Pacific island airport came back to him.

A final interesting note is that the pronunciation is incorrect. It should be pronounced "we key" rather than "wick-ee". The term has become so universal that Cunningham and others have long since stopped trying to correct people. A perfect example of the organic evolution of language.

Perhaps with the world becoming a smaller place and the internet bringing greater, immediate connectivity, we will see more words attaching themselves to the English root in the future.

Explore the full Interesting Etymologies series archive here

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