Saturday, May 10, 2003

Once upon a time...

DICKER refers to petty argument and haggling, by implication it has also come to refer to the casual treatment of anything. The origin of dicker lies in the Middle English diker, which was used for a set of 10 animal hides. Diker itself came from the Latin decuria (a set of ten), which in turn is derived from decem, ten. The noun dicker denoted a quantity of ten and was a common unit used in trading hides or furs. Once dicker entered the lexis as an accepted term for horse-trading, it soon came to be used as a verb as well.

A midwife is a person, usually a woman, who is trained to assist women in childbirth. In figurative usage it has come to refer to any person who helps to bring something into being or assists in its development. The gender-specific connotation gets blurred here even though the etymology points at the feminine. Midwife can be traced to the Middle English midwife made up of mid (with) and wif (woman). This same root also makes up ‘obstetrix’ that later became obstetrics. Thus a midwife was literally a ‘with woman’ or ‘a woman who assists other women in childbirth’.

Gifts from writers
April 26, 2003
Creative destruction
April 12, 2003
Language triumphs
March 29, 2003
March 15, 2003
Describing people
March 1, 2003
A living language
February 15, 2003
The New Year - III
February 1, 2003
The New Year - II
January 18, 2003
The New Year
January 4, 2003
Lively lives
December 21, 2002

Bowdlerism, named after Dr Thomas Bowdler, has been around longer than Comstockery, named for Anthony Comstock. Dr Thomas Bowdler became an eponym when he expurgated Shakespeare, the Bible and Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Anthony Comstock, who came a century later and was the organiser and secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, helped destroy 160 tons of literature and pictures that he considered immoral. The eponym, comstockery, not as well known as bowdlerise, was first recorded in 1905 in a letter by George Bernard Shaw to The New York Times.

Seersucker is a light, thin fabric, generally cotton or rayon, with a crinkled surface and a usually striped pattern. Its origin lies in the Persian shiroshakar made up of shir (milk) and shakar (sugar). Seersucker came into English from Hindi where the root word was sirsakar. The word in Hindi was borrowed from the Persian compound shiroshakar, meaning literally ‘milk and sugar’ but used in a figurative way for a striped linen garment. The Persian word shakar (sugar) in turn came from Sanskrit sarkara. The whole paradigm of multiple cultural borrowings is evident in this single word, made up of input from Persian, Sanskrit, Hindi and English. During and after Timur Laine’s invasion of India in the late fourteenth century, the opportunity for borrowing Persian words such as shir-o-shakar was present, since Persia as well as India was part of his empire. It then remained for the English during the eighteenth century to borrow the material and its name seersucker.


The Hindi word saahas means bravery or courage. It denotes a positive characteristic. The intriguing aspect of this etymology is that saahas is a borrowing from Sanskrit where it stood for a negative characteristic. There, saahas originally meant ‘any act of physical strength (sahas). It usually referred to acts like robbery, murder, dacoity, rape or arson. The Manusmriti enlists saahas under all other criminal acts. When Hindi borrowed the word, it retained the idea that such actions require a lot of grit and daring but left behind the whole criminal connotation, making saahas something highly desirable in a human being.