Wordy Wednesday 2

Coolie – now there is a word that is remarkably offensive; offensive not so much because of what it is, but the implications behind it.

coolie 1

The Oxford Dictionary defines the word thus: unskilled native labourer in eastern countries and gives the word’s origin as perhaps from Kuli, an aboriginal tribe of Gujarat, India.

Hobson-Jobson, the 1886 Anglo-Indian Dictionary, has rather more to say upon the matter.

It gives the spelling as ‘cooly’ and the definition as follows: a hired labourer, or burden-carrier; and, in modern days especially, a labourer induced to emigrate from India, or from China, to labour in the plantations of Mauritius, Reunion, or the West Indies, sometimes under circumstances, especially in French colonies, which have brought the cooly’s condition very near to slavery.

It goes on to give further definitions and details of the word, and then makes several suggestions for its origin. One possibility, agreeing with the Oxford Dictionary, is that it derives from Koli, the name of a caste or race in Western India who frequently carried out these tasks and who, the dictionary reports, had long held a reputation for ‘savagery, filth and general degredation.’ This would make its origin analogous to that of slave, which is presumed to come from the racial term Slav.

But it suggests the waters are rather muddied by a couple of similar words in the Sub-continent: In Southern India a Tamil word Kuli signifying ‘hire’, and Khol is a Tibetan word for slave.

And then there is also a Turkish word kol meaning a slave while, more specifically, kuleh  means ‘a male slave, a bondsman’.

But back to the implication. It is impossible to get away from the colonial undercurrents with this word, as brought out in the Hobson-Jobson definition above. So to use the word to describe a person or persons today, is to call them a servant or slave of a foreign overlord.

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20 thoughts on “Wordy Wednesday 2

  1. Oddly, this is one word that has been shorn of its racial undertones. It’s usually used for (unionized) labour at railway stations who will carry your luggage to the parking lots outside for a price. Of course, they are a rarer breed nowadays with wheeled luggage becoming almost universal in its use.

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  2. I’d seen the term in colonial-era writings about Hong Kong, but don’t think anyone here uses it in this day & age. I once passed through a tiny town in rural New York, and someone told me it was the birthplace of the inventor of the rickshaw. I have no idea whether that’s true, but this man had been a marine in Commodore Perry’s mission to Japan, and then returned to Yokohama as a missionary. The local historian used the word coolie, for the people pulling them, but I don’t think that’s right, I think “rickshaw men” was more common, but I’m guessing you might know more about this.
    In any case, enjoyed your non-wordy post! very interesting. 🙂

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    1. This could be the next Wordy Wednesday Post, Robert. I knew nothing of this, but I did a quick bit of research, and it does seem the rickshaw was invented by a Westerner, although my sources suggest European, so that the Japanese ‘coolies’ could pull his invalid wife around. I was surprised to find no entry in my trusty Hobson-Jobson, tried the Ngram calculator which showed me the word began appearing in books just after the 1880’s, and then found that it came from the Japanese word jinrikisha. I will say no more for now!

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  3. Sometimes delving into the history of words, especially from Indian context is difficult. Many words in India were also derived from other cultures and countries. It gets even more confusing.

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    1. It’s like a detective story, Arv. I first became really fascinated when I discovered the similarities between a number of words in Sanskrit and, for example, Latin or Greek – father is pita in Sanskrit, pater in Greek and Latin. There are lots of other examples, too, it’s like tracing the history of languages since the dawn of time!

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