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Interesting Etymologies 54 : African

"Hello again Word Lovers!"

In this episode we are going to look at words that have come from Africa. It might be assumed that this means we are not going to be looking at words of Proto Indo European (PIE) origin but you may be surprised. It turns out that some words do still come from PIE via trade routes to Africa and then into English.

If you are pushed to come up with an African word in English you might come up with Simba! Not as daft as you might first think:

Simba : Lion - associated with the concepts of strong, powerful. It is believed to have emerged from the east. A popular name in Sikh is Singh. This Punjabi word comes from Sanskirt Simha, meaning, you guessed it, Lion. The word Sikh is also Sanskirt, siksati, meaning he studies or learns. Related to saknoti, he who can or he who is strong. The Taliban also has a similar etymological root, meaning the students.

Many words from Africa are often cited as having an unknown origin, due to culture often being an oral rather than written tradition, but here are some examples of words in English from Africa, recorded since the 1600's:

Okapi, Banana, Macaque, Mambo, Zebra.

Gnu : comes to English from the Dutch gnoe but is related to the original name for the animal Khoikhoii-ngu

Impala : from Zulu + im-pala

Tsetse - fly

Banjo : Possibly Banthu - Bantumbanza. Recorded by Thomas Jefferson as a word imported to America with the African slaves. (see Interesting Etymologies 35: Ebonics)

Bongo: Boungu

Sambo: Uncle from Fula that came to take on a derogatory meaning despite the happy and warm origins.

Chimpanzee: loaned in the 18th Century from Bantu, possibly Kivilici-mpenzi.

Cola: from West African languages

Ebony: from hebeni in Ancient Egptian

Jazz: from West African languages, probably via the slave route once again, similarly Jive and Juke (see Interesting Etymologies 35: Ebonics and Interesting Etymologies 19: The Jazz Age ).

Jumbo: Meaning huge but it is related to a famous elephant, Jumbo, from Swahili.

Mojo - often used to mean virility, energy or enthusiasm but originally meant medicine man in the Fulamoco'o language, coming into English via the Louisiana Creole French or Gullah.

Mumbo Jumbo: This pejorative term emerges from the word Maamajomboo. A term from Mandinka to mean a masked male dancer who performs in rituals.

It has been cited that Merengue and Tango come from Fulani - Mererek - to shake and Tango possibly from Ibibio - Tamgu.

Ubuntu - a word to convey a sense of wholeness for humanity and general kindness.

Explore the full Interesting Etymologies series archive here

As well as being the host of our Interesting Etymologies series, Charly Taylor is a stand up comedian and author. His latest offering is available now:

SkipDeLirio's Worst Ever Gig : A novel by Charly Taylor

Caesar’s army has returned from the long campaign in Gaul and the enemy has been all but defeated. Some of Pompey’s army, however, remains in Africa. Together with straggling Roman rebels and the local king Juba, they are gathering forces to prepare one last attack on what is now Caesar’s Rome. But there is one problem – a descendant of Scipio Africanus is fighting on the side of the Africans. And without a Scipio of their own, the superstitious Romans refuse to go to Africa to fight.

So Caesar sends out soldiers to find himself a Scipio. Luckily, there is a man of such name right there in Rome – a local drunkard and tavern entertainer distantly descended from the legendary warrior. Kidnapped solely on account of his ‘heritage’, the lowly clown is forced to lead out the troops in the battle of Thapsus. There, ‘history’ tells us, Scipio ‘disappears from the historical record’.

Until now.

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