Fritillaries

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The Snake’s Head Fritillary – also known as the Frog Cup, the Guinea Hen Flower, the Chess Flower, due to the remarkable patterns on its petals:

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The name Fritillary, in fact, derives from the Latin fritillus, meaning dice box (which were formerly chequered). Also known as the Chequered Daffodil, the Chequered Lily, and the Leper Lily, since the flower shape resembles the bell once carried by lepers.

We saw and photographed these beautiful but scarce wild flowers exactly five years ago today at Iffley Meadows in Oxford, which is a well-known spot for viewing them.

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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.

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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.

Wordy Wednesday 1

Many bloggers post photographs on Wednesday under the heading ‘Wordless Wednesday’. Me? I’m going to write a few posts about words – specifically words in English borrowed from languages of the Indian Subcontinent.

I’m just plain awkward, but you knew that, didn’t you?

I am currently editing the first draft of my novel A Good Place, which is set in a hill station in Northern India. And in that hill station live a number of English who remained behind after Partition.

‘I’m sitting on the veranda of the bungalow in my pyjamas.’ Well, no, no one says that in my book. But if they had, what is the significance of that sentence?

The significance is the number of words borrowed from Indian languages.

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Veranda is an Indian word, but coming originally, perhaps, from Persian. The Oxford Dictionary suggests two derivatives, either from the Hindi (varanda) or from the Portuguese (varanda). Digging a little deeper, if I refer to Hobson-Jobson, the Anglo-Indian Dictionary that was published in 1886 and traces pretty well every word or phrase borrowed from the Sub-Continent, I discover a very long entry on this word. It begins by dismissing the possibility of it being derived from the Persian beramada, and goes on to state that it appears to exist independently in both Hindi, and in Portuguese (and Spanish). It then traces the possible routes the word might have taken to reach the English language, before then saying, surprisingly, that it could have its roots in the Persian after all. This seems quite likely to me, since many Persian words made their way to India especially with the Mughals, and it suggests a possible route to the Spanish peninsular when the Islamic armies arrived in the early eighth century.

I tried typing it into Ngram Viewer. This is an online tool that searches through the entire database of books that Google can access online (including ones still under copyright) published since 1800. Looking at the results for all books in English, it tells me it was barely used in 1800, although it does exist, rises steadily to a peak about 1910, and then falls away slowly, although it is still in common usage. Unfortunately Ngram has not been set up to search books in Indian languages, or even Portuguese. I tried Spanish and the pattern was similar, except that after peaking just before 1910 , it dropped sharply, but since then the trend has been upwards. I then noticed something. I had actually looked at the trend in American English. So I then tried British English, and this gave me a rather different pattern; The curve rose gradually until it peaked in the 1950’s and then fell away sharply. Why? I think it must be due to a surge of historical / biographical / nostalgic writing, both fiction and non-fiction, after the British left India.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to go into that sort of detail with other words.

Next, bungalow actually refers to a ‘Bengal style’ house (often with a veranda!) that the British frequently chose to live in.

And pyjamas are loose cotton trousers worn in India which were ‘adapted’ for night wear by Europeans.

Okay, class, lesson over. Be sure to wash your hands before eating your snacks (samosas and pakoras today, of course).

In Which Bob’s Wife Goes on Holiday for a Week.

Bob phoned me up.

‘Gina’s gone off on holiday and left me to look after Duncan.’ Duncan is not their pet, although you might assume that from the way he said it, but their son. Now, when I heard that, several questions popped up in my mind. Namely, why had Gina gone off without Bob? Why had she left Duncan with Bob? But mainly, how on earth was Bob going to survive a week looking after himself and Duncan?

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Some celeriac. Very nice but totally irrelevant.

There are husbands who are less capable than Bob, but there are not many of them. At least, I think there are.

‘That’s fine, Bob,’ I said, my voice oozing false conviction. ‘You two can have a great time bonding over boy things.’

‘Bonding?’ he wailed. ‘He’s already said he wants me to take him to the football! And he’s hungry!’

Well, Bob does not like football. Basically, he does not understand football. But rather than pursue that line at that point, I said ‘Uh, hungry? When did Gina go?’

‘Monday morning.’ It was now Wednesday.

‘Monday?’ I asked, in genuine surprise. ‘What have you been eating?’

‘Well, we found enough stuff in the larder for lunch – you know, bread and stuff – and we ordered pizzas for supper. I had cereal this morning for breakfast, Duncan wouldn’t eat anything.’

‘Why not? What’s wrong with toast?’ There was a brief silence.

‘Well, actually, the toaster…um…you know…caught fire.’

‘Oh.’ A thought struck me. ‘And yesterday?’

‘Er, cereal, and, er, sandwiches…’

‘And supper?’

‘Oh, we both fancied pizza again, you know. Really fancied it. Um, they’re very good, those ones…’

‘Bob…’

‘Yes?’

‘Would you like one of us to go shopping with you?’

In the end, we both went round. The kitchen looked as though it belonged in a student squat. The draining board was temporary home to four pizza boxes, several bowls and plates and a host of dirty knives, forks and spoons. There were also three pieces of burnt toast and two pieces of very burnt toast.

The toaster was sticking out of the top of the bin, and the air was perfumed with the delicate scent of smoke.

There was no sign of Duncan.

For some reason, my wife never really seems to have taken to Bob. She narrowed her eyes and fixed him with what I can only describe as displeasure, and suggested that if he would like any help at all with the bloody shopping list, then he might clear up his bloody kitchen immediately, a tactic that actually proved most effective.

He had finished that, and the shopping list had been compiled (No, you can’t possibly live on pizza for a week!), when Duncan walked into the kitchen.

‘Oh, hi!’ he said to us, in a friendly, distracted way, before looking at Bob. Duncan is a perfectly affable fifteen year old, who unfortunately takes more after his father than his mother. He had an instruction book in his hand.

‘I’ve got it Dad, look!’ he said, pointing to the open page. ‘You can do toast under the grill – it’s that thing at the top. I’ve seen Mum using it for something or other – cheese on toast, I think.’

‘Well done!’ said Bob. ‘How does it work?’

‘Um…’ Duncan stared at the page for a moment, turned it over and looked at the other side, and then turned back. ‘Not sure. You’d better take a look.’

We slipped silently out of the house while they studied the booklet.

That week, Bob seemed to drop by our house an unusual amount, generally just for a chat – just to pass the time of day – but there was always an odd question somewhere in the conversation.

‘Where has Gina gone, Bob?’

‘She’s staying in Oxford. Wants to see lots of the churches around there, apparently.’

‘Pity about the weather.’ Outside it was bucketing down. ‘The forecast is for more of this all week.’

‘I know. I’m surprised she didn’t take her waterproofs. They’re still hanging up under the stairs.’

‘Perhaps she forgot.’

‘I expect so. Er, if you were Gina, where would you put spare batteries?’

The day before Gina was due to return, Bob decided to clear up the house. To be fair to him, we didn’t prompt him this time. I think it might have had a little more to do with fear of what Gina might say when she returned to something that resembled a municipal rubbish tip under her own roof. But it all seemed to go well and when he nervously asked us to have a look, clearly worried he might have missed something, we were surprised to see the house had even been vacuumed.

‘That was Duncan.’ The boy went up in my estimation.

‘The only thing that didn’t go right was the washing,’ Bob said reluctantly.

‘In what way?’

‘Well, I put the wash on (he seemed proud of having mastered the terminology), but something went wrong.’ There was a washing basket in the corner, the floor was covered in water, and the clothes it contained were clearly still soaking wet. My wife picked out a shirt and held it up.

Not only was it still dripping with water, but appeared to be for a small child.

‘How did you manage that? Those clothes are completely ruined!’ He looked hurt.

‘Don’t blame me, it was the damned washing machine! I left it on whatever setting it was that Gina last used, put the clothes and a washing tablet inside, and just switched it on.’ He pointed at the offending appliance.

‘Even I know that’s the dishwasher, Bob.’ I said. Inexplicably, he looked relieved.

‘Oh, that’s okay, then. I was worried it might have been on the wrong setting.’

Gina came back in the evening. Despite the week of heavy rain, it must be said that she had somehow managed to pick up a most impressive suntan.