Saturday, February 14, 2009

Names from places

When certain things get associated with the name of a place, new words are added to the lexis and place names take on another layer of meaning. For instance, the city of Jodhpur gave its name to the full-length trousers worn during riding. The men of the erstwhile princely state of Jodhpur wore these trousers that were closely fitted below the knee and had reinforced patches on the inside of the leg in order to take the strain of horse riding.

And, for posterity, these trousers were named ‘Jodhpurs’. In the same style, unbleached white cotton fabric came to be called ‘calico’, a word created by altering the place name Calicut, the city of its origin. No Indian woman worth her salt would forget the ‘banarsi’ (the important ingredient of every dowry) the ornate sari that originated in Benaras. Even if the looms of Benaras may be on the verge of extinction, the word would live on whenever silk is mentioned. Where India is concerned, the rich tradition of fabric weaving means that many place names find their way into the vocabulary, with entries like Kanjeevaram, Chola, Mysore and Assam.

On taking a look at the words associated with the name of countries India and China are neck-to-neck as regards the number of words associated with their names. But, since many words on the ‘Indian’ list relate to the red Indians of the US, China wins the race with more than 20 words on its side. After all, it is the world’s most commonly spoken first language. While there is the usual Chinese meal, Chinese chequers and Chinese whispers, also in existence are less common items like the Chinese wall, a metaphor used for any insurmountable barrier that hampers the flow of information. If a person consumes an excess of ajinomoto (the main flavouring ingredient in Chinese cuisine), and suffers from weakness and palpitations accompanied by numbness, the symptoms are called ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’. In American slang, a Chinese fire drill is a state of disorder and confusion. In the same category of words, a Chinese auction is a combination of an auction and a raffle.