Tracing The Roots Of 25 English Words With Entirely Indian Origins

English words with Indian origins
English words with Indian originsSaumya Singh for Homegrown

India’s fascinating cultural history marked by Mughal empires, Portuguese and English colonialists, and more have shaped a large part of what this country is today, but what few people realize is that India has influenced these rulers right back. Focusing solely on the British Raj, our colonial history is part of our reflection today, and the relationship between Britain and India is visible today in the English language spoken across the world. From words with an apparent Indian origin, such as yoga, to ones with a more inconspicuous Hindustani source, such as candy, several common terms of this language have evolved from Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit, standing as yet another example in time of the cultural and linguistic intermingling of this melting pot of a world.

In 1872, Henry Yule and Arthur C Burnell, two Indic-study-enthusiasts, even began to assemble a compilation of English words with Asian origins used by the British in India, and curiously named it Hobson-Jobson. As the poet Daljit Nagra observed, “It’s a madly unruly and idiosyncratic work. Not so much an orderly dictionary as a passionate memoir of colonial India. Rather like an eccentric Englishman in glossary form.” Referring to cultural appropriation and linguistic overlaps, this dictionary is one of high acclaim, as well as a historical record to be cherished. Keeping up the tradition, we decided to follow the trend of English words influenced by Hindustani languages and crafted a short list of our own. So, scroll on for 25 such terms and their Indian origins.

I. Avatar from Avatarana [Sanskrit]

Tracing the roots of the word Avatar, which first appeared in English way back in the 18th century, brought us to the Sanskrit word avatarana meaning descent. While most urban screen-obsessed youngsters might associate the blockbuster film, or one’s computer character in a visual game, with this word, in Hinduism it’s traditionally used to describe a manifestation or alternate form of a God.

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II. Bandana from Bandhnu [Hindi]

The method of dyeing fabric by tying it in multiple places is known as bandhnu in Hindi, which is where the large, colourful handkerchiefs/bandanas get their name from.

III. Bangle from Bangri [Hindi]

Having first appeared in English in the 1780s, the ornament bangle draws its origin from beautifully coloured glass bracelets or anklets known as bangris.

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IV. Bungalow from Bangla [Hindi]

Dating back to the 17th century when one-storey cottage-like houses were built in Bengal for early European settlers, the source of the common English term bungalow can be traced to the Hindi word bangla, which literally means Bengalese, implying a house built in the Bengal style.


V. Candy < Sucre Candi [French] < Qandi [Persian] < Khanda [Sanskrit]

Sweet-enthusiasts munching down on crystallised sugar might never know that that candy has travelled a long way, in terms of the roots of its origin. Starting from the Sanskrit khanda, another word for sugar, it journeyed to Persia where it became qandi, meaning cane sugar. Making its way to France, old French refers to sugar candy as sucre candi, which then became candy in English.


VI. Cashmere from Kashmir

Those soft, smooth shawls with intricate designs in various colours find their name dating back to the 1680s, christened by the old spelling of the Himalayan state Kashmir, where wool for this garment came from long-haired goats.


VII. Cheetah from Chita [Hindi] from Chitraka [Sankskrit]

The Hindi word chita, meaning leopard, finds its origin in the Sanskrit word chitraka, meaning hunting leopard or tiger, which literally translates to speckled or distinctively marked. And that’s where the long-legged, big cat from Africa gets its name, from its distinct black spots.

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VIII. Chit from Chitthi [Hindi]

All those who spent more time in attempts to waste time rather than paying attention in class have encountered the word chit before, referring to note-passing. The Hindi word chitthi, meaning letter, gifts chit its name.

IX. Chutney from Chatni [Hindi]

This thick, pickled condiment entered the English language in the 19th century referring to a finger-licking accompaniment to food, derived from the Hindi word chatni which means just about the same thing as the English chutney.


X. Cot from Khat [Hindi] from Khatva [Sanskrit]

Emerging in the English language in the 17th century, the word cot refers to a tiny bed meant for a child, and draws inspiration from the Hindi word khat meaning bedstead or hammock, initially derived from Sanskrit’s khatva.

XI. Cummerbund from kamarband [Urdu]

Men dressed in the best will be incomplete without the thick band wrapped around their waists known as a cummerband, whose source can be traced back to Urdu’s kamarband.

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XII. Guru [English from Guru Sanskrit]

Used to refer to intellectual guides or mentors, the word guru embarked upon the English language in the 17th century. While the original Sanskrit term means venerable, it was traditionally used specifically for Hindu or Sikh spiritual guides, even though it’s colloquial use now is more all-encompassing.

XIII. Gymkhana  from Gedkhana [Hindi] or Gendkhana [Urdu]

Hindustani languages referred to English ball-courts quite literally, calling them ball [ged or gend] houses [khana], and that’s where gymkhanas derive their name from, first used in the 1870s.

XIV. Juggernaut from Jagannath [Sanskrit]

All those who casually spout the word juggernaut, while referring to an unstoppable force or movement destroying everything in its path, probably don’t know about the world’s godly origins. Drawing inspiration from the Hindi term Jagannath, used to refer to a form of the Hindu God Krishna.

XV. Jungle from Jangal [Hindi] from Jangala [Sanskrit]

From Sanskrit’s jangala meaning arid, or sparsely grown with trees, to Hindi’s jangal, meaning dessert, wasteland, forest, uncultivated ground, this word travels to finally enter English in the 18th century as jungle, with its first recorded meaning being ‘land overgrown by vegetation in a wild, tangled mass’.

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XVI. Khaki [English from Khaki Urdu] from Khak [Persian]

First introduced in uniforms of British cavalry in India, as well as adopted as camouflage fabric in the Boer Wars, khaki is a well-known cloth around the world. Deriving its name from the Urdu word khaki meaning dust-coloured cloth, it originally comes from khak, meaning dust in Persian.

XVII. Loot from Lut [Hindi] from Lotra [Sanskrit]

Used as a noun to describe the victories of one’s pillage, or as a verb to refer to the act of stealing and ransacking, the commonly used English term loot finds its roots in the Hindi word lut, which means to plunder or steal. The Hindi word in itself owes its origins to the Sanskrit lotra.

XVIII. Mongoose from Mangus [Marathi]

The term used to describe the carnivorous animal known for its ability to kill venomous snakes can be traced back to mangus, the Marathi word for the same creature.

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XIX. Nirvana [English] from Nirvana [Sanskrit]

From one of the world’s most sensational bands to the attainment of inner peace and realisation or perfect bliss, the word nirvana is engrained in the English language since the 1890s, with its roots in the Sanskrit word nirvana meaning disappearance (of the individual soul into the universal).

XX. Punch from Pancha [Sanskrit]

Parties overflowing with cups of the fruity mixture popularly called punch derives its name from Sanskrit’s pancha meaning five, in reference to the five ingredients used in this concoction.

XXI. Pyjama from Payjamah [Hindi]

While English has appropriated the word pyjama, used popularly to describe loose-fitting sleeping attire, it originates from the Hindi term payjamah where pay means leg and jamah means clothing.


XXII. Shampoo from Champo [Hindi]

Champo, which means to squeeze, knead or massage, acts as the basis of the hair product shampoo’s name, which first emerged in the English language in the 18th century.


XXIII. Thug from Thag [Hindi]

The Hindi term thag refers to a thief or cheat, inspiring the commonly used word thug, meaning a brutal or violent person, which entered the English language in the 19th century. So, next time you share a ‘thug life’ meme, remember to tip your hat to Hindi for the phrase.

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XXIV. Veranda from Varanda [Hindi, Portuguese]

Featuring in both Portuguese and Hindi as a sheltered gallery or terrace attached to a house, the word varanda stands as the source of the term veranda, first seen in the English language in the 18th century.

XXV. Yoga [English from Yoga Sanskrit]

All yoga-enthusiasts looking for zen calmness and flexibility should note, the name of your passion originally means yoking or union in Sanskrit, highlighting the Hindu philosophy of reunion with the divine.

Featured illustrations by Saumya Singh for Homegrown.

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