Thursday, May 7, 2009

Running amok

English is known as a language that has adopted freely from other languages. Not only is our grammar Germanic and our vocabulary chiefly French, but we also have numerous words from Spanish, Italian, and many other languages. Some of our most remote adoptions come from Malay, which is spoken about as nearly on the other side of the world as one can get from America. Apart from various animals and plants (notably bamboo, dugong, and orangutan), Malay has given us two common nouns and one adjective.
  • amok: To run amok is to attack wildly in all directions. Apparently, some Malays occasionally snap and begin an actual frenzied attack on everyone around them.
  • boondocks: It surprised me when I learned that this word was Malay, because it sounds perfectly English, and I hear it most from country folk (who actually live in the boondocks), where older words tend to persist. This word must fulfill a lacuna in English, because the only equivalent words are the derivative "boonies" and the expression "in the sticks," which doesn't sound nearly as isolated. (I've always wondered what the "sticks" are supposed to refer to.)
  • ketchup: Perhaps the most interesting word of Malay origin, and certainly the most common, is ketchup. It comes from a phrase meaning "fish sauce," but not in the sense that you might think: it was not originally a sauce for fish, but a sauce made from fish. I learned this interesting tidbit from Mark Kurlansky's book Salt: A World History. Back when salt was needed to preserve food, and pickling was used on everything, pickled fish was used as a kind of sauce, like soy sauce. The English added tomatoes in the 18th century.

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