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Written by Friday, 12 July 2013 10:28


The mantra believed to heal, and also kill

Sometimes it is a puzzle how some words in the English dictionary are long and non-Anglicised. The term abracadabra is one such. It is not only long, but it can also be a tongue-twister. The term is used without any change in many other languages. The reason could be its association with magic, but not of the kind where you pull out a rabbit from a hat. Abracadabra was a revered term, the power of which was believed to ward off illnesses. The term is first recorded in the second century Latin poem De medicina praecepta, by the Roman physician Quintus Serenus Sammonicus.


It was believed an amulet with the word written on it could cure fevers, inflammations and even malaria. He explains abracadabra was written 11 times in the form of an inverted triangle, with one letter omitted in each line. The writings on the piece of parchment started with ABRACADABRA, ABRACADABR, ABRACADAB, and so on until only A was left. Patients wore the amulet around their necks for nine days after which they tossed it over their shoulders into a stream running to the east. People believed the shortening word diminished the hold of the spirit on the patient.


Roman emperors also used the incantation to cure themselves of diseases. Sceptics say most fevers run their course for a week or two and then diminish, and the word had little to do with the cure. Abracadabra owes its origin to the Aramaic language, where it was originally written as avara kedvara. Lawrence Kushner's The Book of Words, published in 1998, says avara means "to create" and kedvara is "as I speak." Though this theory is the most accepted, etymologists propose other theories, too. Some believe the word comes from the Chaldean abbada ke dabra meaning "perish like the word.


" Some say it originated with a Gnostic sect in Alexandria called the Basilidians. They based the term on Abrasax, the name of their supreme deity. The inscription abracabadra has been found on stones dedicated to Abrasax. There is also a view that the term comes from the Hebrew, habrachah meaning 'the blessing' (which was actually a euphemism for the curse), and dabra, an Aramaic form of the Hebrew word dever meaning 'pestilence.


' The term entered the English language through Latin in the 16th century. Daniel Defoe in his non-fiction account of London's Great Plague of 1965, A Journal of the Plague Year, writes about the different remedies the masses resorted to. They also turned towards the occult and used abracadabra amulets. Twentieth century English occultist Aleister Crowley gave his own meaning to abracadabra. His The Book of Law outlined the principles of Thelema, the new religion he founded. In it he described abracadabra as "the word of Aeon, which signifieth The Great Work accomplished.


" He also wrote, "It means by translation Abraha Deber, the Voice of the Chief Seer." However, this translation seems dubious and was perhaps made to promulgate his religion. Known as the 'Millionaires' Magician,' Steve Cohen in his 2005 book Win the Crowd, decodes abracadabra as "I will create as was spoken." He says this meaning makes it apt to be spoken by a stage magician before a trick. JK Rowling in her Harry Potter books has used 'Avada kedavra,' as a killing curse.


In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, she writes: "Harry Potter, the boy who lived... come to die. Avada Kedavra!" screams Lord Voldermort. In an interview at the Edinburg Book Festival in April 2004, she claimed she based the curse on the original Aramaic form of abracadabra. She said the original meaning was "let the thing be destroyed," and "it" referred to the illness.



Written by Friday, 05 July 2013 13:09


Facials, fairness creams, conditioners and shampoos have become a part of our daily vocabulary. So much so, they seem to be as essential as milk and bread. The relentless promotion of these products makes the words seem as old as the English language itself. Have you ever wondered how the English came up with a word like shampoo? It may sound exotic, but shampoo’s roots are in the desi term champoo. It is yet another addition from Hindi to English, via the East India Company. To know what champoo means shouldn’t be very difficult if you have watched oil and shampoo advertisements in the past.


They represent Champoo as a child with sticky hair oil who gets ridiculed by peers. Ads promoting hair oil talk of champi, the act of massaging the head with oil, which is believed to nourish the hair and make it shiny and silky. It is from champi that shampoo originates. The British in India saw the nawabs having an elaborate bath, which began with a rigorous full body massage called champi. The English called this massage shampoo. They then expanded the meaning to include all kinds of massages from other parts of the world too. The earliest record of shampoo can be seen in a 1698 work by Western travellers to China.


They wrote: “A kind of Instrument, called, in China, a Champing Instrument. Its use is to be [rubbed] or [rolled] over the Muscular Flesh.” It was in the year 1762 that shampoo was first seen in print, where the writer says, “Had I not seen several China merchants shampooed before me, I should have been apprehensive of danger.” Here he is talking about the body massage with rubbing and kneading of the limbs and torso prevalent in India. Perhaps, when he saw the Chinese merchants undergoing the massage, he became less apprehensive.


The credit of popularising the term shampoo goes to a Bihari surgeon and entrepreneur Sake Dean Mohamed, also known to be the first Indian writer in English. Mohamed’s father was employed with the East India Company. He died when Mohamed was 10, and the child was raised by a British army captain Godfrey Evan Baker. Mohamed later moved with Baker to England. In 1794, he published his travel book, The Travels of Dean Mohamet. He also started the first Indian restaurant in England called Hindoostanee Coffee House. His entrepreneurial skills were truly admirable, for he also introduced shampooing to England, which was again full body massage with a steam bath. It was the first commercial “shampooing” vapour masseur bath in England.


Being also a doctor, Mohamed promoted the medical benefits of shampooing or Indian massages. In the book The Shampooing Surgeon and the Persian Prince: Two Indians in Early Nineteenth century Britain, Kate Teltscher describes how Mohamed marketed the bath. He described the treatment in a local paper as “The Indian Medicated Vapour Bath (type of Turkish bath), a cure to many diseases and giving full relief when everything fails; particularly Rheumatic and paralytic, gout, stiff joints, old sprains and aches and pains in the joints.” The business was an instant success. Mohamed was appointed ‘shampooing surgeon’ to King George IV and William IV. By about 1860, the word became restricted to washing of hair and stopped referring to the massage and bath. When entrepreneurs invented a soap specially for the hair in the 19th century, they settled for shampoo, a word with exotic associations.


Written by Friday, 28 June 2013 09:26


MUMBO & JUMBO Two men in maamajomboo costume, a scene from Senegal

Whenever elephants stray from the migratory paths and enter villages around Bangalore, the headlines scream about a ‘jumbo invasion’. If the news is not about the elephants going on a rampage, it is about how they died from electric shock. When something is called jumbo, we more often than not think of the pachyderms.


But jumbo means more than elephant. How the word originated is a bit confusing. The first evidence of the term in English is seen in an 1823 work on racing. Here jumbo meant a huge, clumsy person. Etymologists trace its origin to the phrase mumbo-jumbo. The Mandingo people of Africa had a ritual where a man wore a costume which made him seem eight or nine feet high. It was made from the tree bark, and was a long coat, crowned with straw.


It was called the Maamajomboo, and was invoked to solve disputes. Similar rituals can be seen in India too, especially on the Karnataka coast, where a person dressed in a certain costume is believed to be possessed by the spirit of a temple deity. The English corrupted maamajomboo to mumbo-jumbo. It can be seen in a description of the ritual in Francis Moore’s 1738 work, Travels into the Inland Parts of Africa. He writes,“The people also swear by the Mumbo Jumbo; and the oath is esteemed irrevocable.” Since the Europeans dismissed the figure and what it spoke, anything that didn’t make sense came to be known as mumbo-jumbo.


Perhaps it is because of this meaning that a large clumsy man was called a jumbo. This usage is seen in only one work, though. It was only in 1865, that jumbo made another appearance again. A young African elephant was brought from Paris to the Royal Zoological Society in London. The superintendent Abraham Bartlett is believed to have named him Jumbo. In his 1950 book Elephant Story: Jumbo and PT Barnum Under the Big Top, Les Harding says “Possibly the superintendent of the zoo… just liked the sound of the word.


Bartlett once named a gorilla Mumbo, and after Jumbo departed for America he named a replacement elephant Jingo.” Some believe that a Sudanese handler at the zoo must have combined jumbe, a Swahili word for chief and jambo, meaning hello to form the name Jumbo. Jumbo grew to be 12 feet tall and weighed six tons. Worried that he may be too difficult to handle, the zoo sold him to the Barnum and Bailey’s Circus in 1882.


The circus took Jumbo to America where his name became synonymous with anything huge. Thomas Alva Edison named one of his new electric dynamos Jumbo in 1884. The elephant Jumbo was hit by a train and killed in 1885. But his name lived on. In North America, anything that was large came to be known as jumbo.


Advertisers used it with anything they wanted to promote as big. There were jumbo burgers, jumbo sausages and jumbo shrimps. In 1886, there were jumbo cigars too. The term jumbo became popular internationally only in the 1960s when Boeing marketed its aircraft 747 as a jumbo jet. Later, all wide-bodied aircraft came to be known as jumbo jets. We still see ads selling jumbo offers, and jumbo packs. Of course we call elephants jumbo. In Kannada, jamboo savari refers to an elephant ride. Remember the Bollywood animated film starring Akshay Kumar, Jumbo?


Written by Thursday, 20 June 2013 11:51



The tussle between what plant is edible and what is plain ornamental has been always around. Tomatoes and lemons—which are common kitchen plants now—were once considered ornamental. In fact, lemon is native to India. It was (and still is) called by its Sanskrit name nimbu and has been cultivated for over 2,500 years.


The Arab traders who visited ancient India were impressed with the round yellow fruits amidst symmetrical dark green leaves. They took some plants home to the Middle East and Africa in around 100 CE. They grew them in their front yard as ornamental trees. We could say they treated lemons like flowers, and not as a food component.


The Arabs were familiar with other citrus fruits like citron and Persian apple. Since lemons also belonged to the same family and looked similar, the called it limun. The root word was lim, which is a generic term for citrus fruits in Arabic and Persian.


The fruit was then widely distributed in the Middle East, Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean regions. The Arabs took lemon to Southern Italy and Spain. Christian crusaders returning from Palestine took it to the rest of Europe. It was called limone in Italian and limon in Old French.


The term entered English as limon. One of its earliest uses can be found in a Middle English customs document of 1420-21. Literature written in the 14th and 15th centuries has varying spellings: lymons, limmons, lemmonz and lemmons.


The spelling lemon, as we use it now, was perhaps first written in the 17th century. British playwright William Congreve in his 1695 play Love for Love says, “Safer.. than Letters writ in Juice of Lemon, for no Fire can fetch it out.” Here he is referring to the technique of using lemon juice as invisible ink. If you write on paper with lemon juice, the writing disappears as soon as the juice dries up, but when the paper is held over a fire, the writing reappears. It is believed that lovers used it to send secret letters in ancient times. School kids continue to use it as a ‘magic trick.’


Sometime in the 19th century, lemon became a part of popular slang, but with multiple meanings. Perhaps its first slang meaning was ‘someone with a snappy disposition.’ It was later used by criminals to mean an easy victim. PG Wodehouse in his 1931 novel Big Money uses this slang: “I don’t know why it is, rich men’s sons are always the worst lemons in creation.”


Around the same time, lemon was also used to mean head. In The Inimitable Jeeves, Wodehouse uses lemon to mean this: ‘What might you have missed?’ I asked, the old lemon being slightly clouded. In the United States, the slang meaning that gained popularity was of something that is bad or doesn’t meet expectations. The 1914 book Choice Slang uses lemon to mean disappointment.


This meaning has survived through the years, thanks to the proverbial phrase to encourage optimism, If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. The phrase was first used in 1915 by American writer Elbert Hubbard in an obituary for dwarf actor Marshal P Wider. Praising Wilder’s attitude in using his disability to his advantage he wrote, “He picked up the lemons that Fate had sent him and started a lemonade-stand.”


The phrase was later popularised by Dale Carnegie, that incorrigible optimist. We now have several versions of it. One of them is: When life gives you lemon, grab tequila and salt.


Written by Friday, 14 June 2013 06:43


OMG!The traditional expression for surprise has made a comeback thanks to the Internet generation


Written by Friday, 31 May 2013 08:59


THE ORIGINALThese World War II bombs were capable of ‘busting’ entire residential blocks


Written by Friday, 24 May 2013 06:35


TIME OUTFor the ancient Greeks, schole was a place for contemplation and debate


Written by Friday, 17 May 2013 10:55


Ionce overheard two people in a pub. “God bless the one who invented beer,” said one man. “God bless him. But do you know who invented it?” asked the other. “No. Do you?” asked the first man. “No,” replied the other. “Such things cannot be invented. They are God’s gifts to men.”


The question of who invented beer cannot really be answered. Beer seems to have been in existence since ancient times in all parts of the world in varying forms, with different names. No one knows who first created beer. The origin of the term beer is equally ambiguous. There are many theories around it.


In Old English, what we know today as beer was called ‘ale’. Well, now we broadly differentiate beers as ales and lagers. Ale is beer fermented at high temperature. Lager is the drink fermented at lower temperatures, and that is what we usually get in bottles.


 In earlier days, the English called all kinds of beer by the name of ‘ale’. The term beer is believed to have first originated in medieval Europe. When Catholic monks started brewing beer around the sixth century, they borrowed the Latin term biber, meaning drink or beverage. It became bier. The Germans were the first to replace ale with bier. It was later used in Dutch and French, but not in English.


In English, bier was used only in poetic language, and that too, rarely. The common term for the beverage continued to be ‘ale’. Around the 16th century, hops (a twining climbing plant) began to be used as a preservative in ale, instead of other leaves or barks. This new kind of ale, made in Flanders in Belgium and imported to England, came to be called beer in English.


The usage of hops as a preservative became popular in Europe, as did the term beer. This drink was not exactly like the beer we drink today, but was something like hopflavoured ale.


A 17th century jingle puts it this way: Turkeys, carps, hops, piccadel and beer/ Came into England all in one year.


The beer we know today—actually the lager beer—was invented only about 150 years ago. This new kind replaced the earlier ones (what we now know as ‘ales’) and gained popularity. The term beer became synonymous with the bubbly drink with low alcohol content. The original term ale was reduced to just a form of beer.


Microbreweries these days also mention ale as one of several kinds of beer in their menus. What’s ironical is that ale was once a common term and beer a poetic word. Now it is the other way round.


The other theory on the origin of the term beer is that it came from the Proto- Germanic term beuwo, meaning barley. Some etymologists believe it comes from the Old English word beor meaning strong drink or mead. All these theories have been disputed. Does anyone care? For the guzzlers, beer could very well have originated from the happy ‘burrp’ sound they produce after downing a mug or two.


Written by Friday, 26 April 2013 08:55

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