• Chris Sowton

Writer: British Council '70 Words' Project

Updated: Sep 18, 2019

As part of the 70th anniversary celebrations of the British Council in India in 2018, I was commissioned to create 'The 70 Words Project'. The aim of this project was to bring to light how India and its languages have influenced and inspired the English language over the years by presenting 70 words of Indian origin that have found their way into the mainstream English lexicon. Spanning across a wide range of categories from food (e.g. curry, kedgeree mulligatawny) to clothing (e.g. pyjamas, cummerbund, bandana) to spirituality (nirvana, yoga, avatar) and much more, the words highlight the relationship between the UK and India over the past seven decades. As well as looking at major languages such as Hindi, Urdu and Bengali, the project looked at less well-known ones including Marathi, Maldivian and Tibetan. All 70 entries can be found at the British Council India website, and you can test your knowledge of these words yourself here.


Three Sample Entries


- Catamaran

As early as 1697 in A new voyage round the world, William Dampier describes catamarans as being composed of “but one Log, or two sometimes, of a sort of light Wood…so small, that they carry but one Man, whose legs and breech are always in the Water.” Given that he saw them going up and down India’s Coromandel Coast (its south-eastern side), it is no surprise that the word has Dravidian roots – specifically the Tamil word katta-maram meaning ‘tied tree or wood’. The word came to be used to also describe similar craft used in the West Indies, and others of much larger size off the coast of South America. Its modern meaning refers to a sailing boat with twin hulls placed side by side, which are widely used for pleasure and in sailing contests.




- Chit

Deriving from the Hindi chiṭṭhī and Mahratti chiṭṭī, ‘chit’ is the more common abbreviated form of chitty, meaning a letter or note. An earlier meaning of the word was a certificate given to a servant. It seems to share the same ultimate root with both ‘cheetah’ and ‘chintz’, namely the Sanskrit chitra, meaning ‘spotted’ or ‘distinctively marked’. The prevalence of chits is well recorded in Indian history, with the Athenaeum in 1871 noting, for example, that that “In India the practice of writing chits, i.e. notes, on the smallest provocation has always been carried to excess”. In addition to their bureaucratic function, the whiff of scandal could quickly attach itself to a chit; in The Lady of the Manor (1826), Mary Sherwood writes breathlessly that “The chit was found on Miss Crawford's dressing-table; a chit which nobody wrote, but which every body read.” Compounds (increasingly rare) using the base term include ‘chit-book’ and ‘chit system’.



- Punch

Punch is a drink made from a mixture of alcoholic and non-alcoholic ingredients, now usually wine or spirits mixed with water, fruit, spices, and sugar, and often served hot. Entries in the OED show that its composition has never been fully fixed. It is described in 1658 as being made of “Lime-juice, Brandy and other Ingredients” and in 1725 as “Brandy, Rack [arack], or Rum, Water warm or cold, Lemon-juice, Sugar, and sometimes a little Milk”. Its composition could also change depending where in the world you were. In 1660, for example, punch was described as “a drink they have in the Barbados, made of water and sugar.” The word derives from the Sanskrit pañcāmṛta, meaning “five nectars (of the gods)”, a medicine combining five ingredients, namely milk, curd, butter (probably ghee), honey and sugar. Hobson-Jobson gives an interesting parallel of a famous horse medicine called battisi, which contained 32 (‘battis’) ingredients. An alternative etymology for punch was put forward by C.B. Mount in Notes & Queries (1905), who noted the prevalence of punch as a seaman’s drink in early use. Based on this he suggested the word originated not in India, but on the way there, as a sailors’ shortening of puncheon (= a large barrel).

©2019 by Chris Sowton