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Nepalipan (Nepali Times) - 14 - 20 August 2009

Jung Bahadur's "tip"

How foreign words have entered the Nepali lexicon


When Jung Bahadur Rana applauded gustily to an opera singer's melodious aria in Covent Garden in 1850, Queen Victoria, bemused, was said to have leaned over to ask whether the Maharajah of Nepaul understood the music.

"I do not understand the nightingale either," Jung is said to have retorted, "yet I find its song beautiful." After the encore Jung Bahadur threw gold coins to the singing star, and at the startled looks all around, exclaimed in Nepali: "Tip!"

He meant 'pick it up' in Nepali. But, as legend has it, that is where the English word 'tip' had its origin, meaning the small change we leave behind as a token of our appreciation for service rendered. This apocryphal story is probably absolutely untrue, but wish it was.

Words in one language are in the process of dynamic transfer to another, and we can never stop that. Nepali has been infused with Turkish, Persian, Arabic and English words throughout history.

Bir Narsingh Kunwar captured state power in Nepal following the Kot Massacre of 1846 and reinvented himself as Jung Bahadur Rana, a Persian formulation in which 'Shumsher Jung Bahadur' infers a martial inclination: 'Brave with the Sword at War'

Persian words entered Nepali through the palaces, bureaucracy, and the courts. Even words that we think of as quintessentially Nepali came from Persian: 'subba', 'kaji', khardar', baidar', hukum', 'labeda suruwal'. Till 50 years ago the word for 'holiday' in Nepali was the Turkic word, 'tatil'.

There are plenty of Arabic words in our everyday Nepali language. 'Huzoor' is one we use a word used to address someone higher up than you, and now used universally for 'hello' when picking up the phone.

We have seen many faded photographs of Rana ladies resplendent in Victorian dresses and bedecked with 'Lucknow-loot' vintage jewellery. They posed for the 'tasbir', a derivative of the Arabic 'tasveer' and many were liberally sprinkled in 'attar', the alcohol-free essence of flowers the Arabians called 'ittar'.

'Kitab', book in Arabic, is what we read in Nepal today. We also read 'akhabar' for our news and the word 'khabarpatrika' is a mixture of Sanskrit and Arabic meaning 'newsmagazine'. 'Akhir' is the end, probably where Nepal is headed towards if the constitution writing does not meet the deadline. Even if we get a new constitution it should be 'asali', an original one suited to our soil.

Interestingly, all three Nepali words for 'pocket' are foreign: 'paket', 'goji' and 'khalti'. probably because Nepali dresses never had any pockets. So the idea of taking the pockets out of kleptomaniac staff at Kathmandu airport is probably based on tradition.

Perhaps some of the most hilarious words we have come from English, or at least from the mishearing or mispronouncing of the English words. The nobility were carried around town in 'William Carts', which became 'ulingkhat' in Nepali, and it fit well because 'khat' already meant 'bed' in Nepali.

The tandem became 'tamdana'. The waist-coat worn by the British colonialist was 'ista kot' passed on to the Nepali hill dwellers because we couldn't quite pronounce 'waist'. So, in the end, a 'west' coat ended up sounding like an 'east' coat.

The transfer of English words into Nepali continues to this day with a lot of military terms like 'ambush' and 'RPG' entering the Nepali lexicon. With Nepali students migrating for higher studies 'abroad study' has also become a Nepali phrase, as had the earlier 'jel' (jail) and 'byrot' (traveling by road).

'Cheroot' the small cigar with cylindrical ends became 'churot', and now a generic term for all cigarettes in Nepali. The Duke of Wellington, the British hero of the Napoleonic Wars always pictured in sartorial splendour, curiously enough, came to symbolise the dandy without substance in the rather derogatory Nepali term 'dukalanthan'. Napoleon would have been pleased.

Any other examples, kamreds?


  1. This collection of words and how they were derived is fantastic. Churot, Tandam, Dukulanthan,just marvellous. "Tip" I just love the possible etymology you suggest, except that word when used as gratuity predates Jung Bdr. Rana.
    Anyway thanks for a most entertaining write up.
    Other words of interest derived from Sanskrit are juggernaut ( from Jaganath), serendipity ( from Serindipa ie Sri Linka), and amazingly the word zen is derived from Dhyan

  2. Enjoyed reading your piece.There are many examples I can think of that comes from English language:Pants,plane, motorcar,cycle,boot cinema etc.And now with modern gadgets there has been a wholesale import of foreign words but modified by the Nepali tongue of course!

  3. interesting, very well researched, cudnt help posting my own article on a similar theme

  4. Hello there,

    first one is Nepali " Kot" from English Court. Reminds of the Kot Massacre right?

    Some Greek Connection, Sofia means Pristine that word traveled to east and became

    Nepali Safaa, or saaf in Hindi

    Petra,means stone, in Greek became Sanskrit Patthar, which both Nepali and Hindi uses as a common word for stone.



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